Housing and Stocks

February 23rd, 2014

The extreme cold in half of the country had a profound effect on housing starts which fell 16% in January.  Less affected by the weather are permits for new housing which slid 5%.

The Bible prescribes that every 50th year should be a Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven.  While this policy of redistribution of property might be a practical solution in a smaller tribal society, it is much less practical, even dangerous, in a complex economy.  By targeting a 2% inflation rate, central banks in the developed world engage in a type of gradual debt forgiveness.  Inflation incrementally shifts the real value of a debt from the debtor to the creditor.  At a 2% inflation rate, a debt is worth half as much in 35 years.

Let’s say Sam borrows $1000 from Jane at 0% interest and doesn’t pay her anything for 35 years, then pays off the debt.  The $1000 that Sam pays back in 35 years is only worth $500 in purchasing power.  Half of Sam’s debt has effectively been forgiven.  So why would Jane loan Sam any money?  She wouldn’t – not at 0% interest.  At that interest rate the loan is actually a gift.  Jane would need Sam to pay her an interest rate that 1) offsets the erosion of the purchasing power of the loan amount, the principal, and 2) compensates Jane for the use of her money over the 35 years.

Janes all over the world loan Sam the money and don’t want much interest.  The Sam in this case is Uncle Sam, the U.S. Government.  The loan is called a 30 year Treasury bond.  (Treasury FAQs )

If your name is just plain old Sam though, few people want to loan you money for thirty years, even if it is to buy a hard physical asset like a house.  That is why U.S. government agencies back most of the mortgages in the U.S., essentially funneling the money from around the world to ordinary Sams and Janes to buy housing.  Heck of a system, isn’t it?

The affordability of housing… 

In the metro Denver area, median household income was $59,230 in 2011, compared to the national median income of $50,054. (Source)  According to Zillow, the median home value in Denver is $253,700, or 4.3 times income.   Although Denver is a large city, it is not a megalopolis like New York City or Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, median home values are $491,000.  Median incomes in 2011 were $46,148, so that home values are more than ten times incomes.  Like other megaregions, Los Angeles has a huge disparity in housing and incomes, resulting in a median income that is skewed downward because of the large number of poor people that inhabit any large metropolitan area.  The L.A. Times ranks incomes by neighborhoods.  This ranking shows a median income in middle class areas at about $85K.  Using this metric, housing is still more than six times income.  Using a conventional bank ratio of .28 of mortgage payment to income, a household income of $85K will qualify for a monthly mortgage payment of almost $2K, which will get a 30 year, 4.5% fixed interest mortgage payment, including property taxes, of about $320K.  A 20% down payment of $80K brings the price of an affordable house to $400K, below the median value of $461K, meaning that many middle class Los Angelenos can not afford to live in a middle class neighborhood.

… acts as a constraint on home sales.

This week the National Assoc of Realtors reported a year over year 5% drop in existing home sales.  After rising more than 10% over the past year, prices have outrun increases in income.  While we don’t have median household income figures for 2013, disposable personal income actually declined in 2013 so we can guesstimate that household income was relatively flat as well.

As this year progresses, we may see other effects from the drop in disposable income.  Economists and market watchers will be focusing on auto and retail sales in the coming months.  January’s Consumer Price Index showed a yearly percent gain of 1.6%, indicating little inflationary headwinds.  An obstacle to growth is the difference between inflation and the weak growth in household income.


Minimum Wage

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office released their estimate of the net effect of raising the minimum wage to either $9 or $10.10 from the current Federal level of $7.25 an hour.  Their analysis ranged from a minimal loss of jobs to almost a million jobs lost.  The average of this range, 500,000 jobs lost, became the headline number.  The CBO also noted that over 16 million low income workers would see an increase in income, enabling some to rely less on government aid programs.  Their projection was a slight increase in revenues to government.  A half million jobs is relatively small in a workforce of 150 million.  Some economists would concur that there is no clear evidence that raising the minimum wage has any effect on the number of jobs.  The science of economics is the study of complex human behavior in response to changes in our environment and resources.  Many times the data is not as conclusive as one might like, leading researchers to statistically filter or interpret the data according to their professional biases.

A 2013 analysis of minimum wage workers by the Economic Policy Institute indicated that the average age of minimum wage workers was about 35 years old.  Yet, 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the primary aggregator of labor force characteristics, does not support EPI’s conclusions – unless one includes workers who are exempt from minimum wage laws – like waiters – who are paid below the minimum wage law.  The BLS data shows that 55% of minimum wage workers are below 25 years old.

Too frequently, financial reporters who could summarize the caveats of a particular study either don’t bother or their work is left on the editor’s floor.  Many readers digest the headline summary without question and a difficult guesstimate by a government agency like the CBO is re-quoted as though it were gospel truth.


Manufacturing Rebound?
On the bright side, an early indicator of manufacturing activity in February showed a rebound from January’s decline.


Stock Market Dividends
As the market continues to rise, the voices of caution, if not doom, get louder.  Some analysts are permanent prophets of catastrophe.  Eventually they are right, the market sinks, they proclaim their skills of prognostication and sell more subscriptions to their newsletters.  Subscribers to these newsletters don’t seem to mind that the authors are wrong most of the time.

Last August, I wrote about the dividend yield – or it’s inverse ratio, the price dividend ratio – of the SP500 index using data that economist Robert Shiller compiles from a variety of sources.  The dividend yield of the SP500 index is currently 1.9%, meaning that for every $100 a person invested in the SP500 index, they could expect $1.90 in dividends.  The price dividend ratio is just the inverse of that, or $100 / $1.90 = 52.6. The current dividend yield is at the 20 year average.  I will focus on the dividend yield, or the interest rate that the SP500 index pays an investor.

It might surprise some investors that dividend information is available on a more timely basis than earnings.  In the aggregate,  dividends are more reliable and predictable.  Most companies have several versions of earnings and they massage their earnings to present the company in the best light.  On the other hand, most companies announce their dividend payouts near the end of each quarter so that the aggregate information is available to an investor more quickly than aggregate earnings.

Most portfolios contain a mixture of stocks and bonds so it is instructive to compare the dividend yield of the relatively risky SP500 with the yield on what is considered a perfectly safe bond – the 10 year Treasury.  Many investors think of these two asset classes as complementary – they are – but they are also in competition with each other. If the real dividend yield on stocks is the same as ten year Treasuries, it means investors in stocks want to be compensated for risking their principle on stocks.  If the interest rate on 10 year Treasuries is 4% and the  dividend yield of the SP500 is 2%, then the dividend ratio of stocks to Treasuries is 2% / 4%, or .5.  As investors perceive less risk in the stock market, this “demand for yield” from stocks will fall and the ratio will decline.   In the past, this ratio has reached a low of .19 in July 2000 as the stock market reached its apex of exuberance and investors became convinced that the rise of the internet and just in time inventory control had ushered in a new era in business.  Bill Gates, then CEO, Chairman  and founder of Microsoft, scoffed at dividends as a waste of money that could be better put to use by a company in growing the business. At the other extreme, this demand for yield ratio rose as high as 1.28 in March 2009 as stocks reached their lows of the recession.

More importantly is the movement of this ratio from peaks and troughs, indicating a change in sentiment among investors.  Note that the early 2003 market lows after the tech bubble burst were about the 50 year average of this ratio.  Compare that relative calm to the spikes of fear in this ratio since late 2007 to early 2008.  For the past 18 months, this demand for yield has declined but is still above the 50 year average.  There is still enough skepticism toward the stock market that it continues to curb exuberance.

Transfer Payments

February 16th, 2014

In this election year, as in 2012, the subject of transfer payments will rear its ugly head with greater frequency.  In the mouths and minds of some politicians, “transfer payments” is synonymous with “welfare.”  Don’t be confused – it is not.  As this aspect of the economy grows, politicians in Washington and the states get an increasing say in who wins and who loses.  Below is a graph of transfer payments as a percent of the economy.  I have excluded Social Security and Unemployment because both of those programs have specific taxes that are supposed to fund the programs.

Transfer payments, as treated in the National Income and Product Accounts (see here for a succinct 2 page overview), are an accounting device that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) uses to separate transfers of money this year for which no goods or services were purchased this year.  The BEA does this because they want to aggregate the income and production of the current year. Because that category includes unemployment compensation, housing and food subsidies, some people mistakenly believe that the category includes only welfare programs.   Here’s a list of payments that the BEA includes:

Current transfer receipts from government, which are called government social benefits in the NIPAs, primarily consist of payments that are received by households from social insurance funds and government programs. These funds and programs include social security, hospital insurance, unemployment insurance, railroad retirement, work­ers’ compensation, food stamps, medical care, family assistance, and education assistance. Current transfer receipts from business consist of liability payments for personal injury that are received by households, net in­surance settlements that are received by households, and charitable contributions that are received by NPISHs.

That settlement you received from your neighbor’s insurance company when his tree fell on your house is a transfer payment.  Didn’t know you were on welfare, did you?  Some politicians then cite data produced by the BEA to make an argument the government needs to curtail welfare programs.  Receiving a Social Security check after paying Social Security taxes for forty plus years?  You’re on welfare.  A payment to a farmer to not grow a bushel of wheat – an agricultural subsidy – is not a transfer payment.  A payment to a worker to not produce an hour of labor – unemployment insurance – is a transfer payment.  Got that?  While there are valid accounting reasons to treat a farmer’s subsidy check and a worker’s unemployment check differently, some politicians prey on the ignorance of that accounting difference to push an ideological agenda.

That agenda is based on a valid question: should a government be in the business of providing selective welfare; that is, to only a small subset of the population?  Some say yes, some say no.  If the answer is no, does that include relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, for example?  Even those who do say no would agree that emergencies of that nature warrant an exception to a policy of no directed subsidies or welfare payments.  It was in the middle of a national emergency, the Great Depression, that Social Security and unemployment compensation were enacted.  Government subsidies for banks began at this time as well.  Agricultural subsidies began in response to an earlier emergency – a sharp depression a few years after the end of World War 1.  Health care subsidies were enacted during the emergency of World War 2.  The pattern repeats; a subsidy starts as a response to an immediate and ongoing emergency but soon becomes a permanent fixture of government policy.

Tea Party purists think that the Constitutional role of the federal government is to tax and distribute taxes equally among the citizens.  Before the 16th Amendment was passed a hundred years ago, the taxing authority of the Federal Government was narrowly restricted.  However, the Federal Government has always been selective in distributing  the resources at its disposal.  Land, forests, mining and water rights were either given or sold for pennies on the dollar to a select few businesses or individuals. (American Canopy is an entertaining and informative read of the distribution and use of resources in the U.S.) By 1913, the Federal Government had dispensed with so much land, trees and water that it had little to parlay with – except money, which it didn’t have enough of.  Solution: the income tax.

In principle, I agree with the Tea Party, that the government at the Federal and state level should not play God.  How likely is it that the voters of this country will overturn two centuries of precedent and end transfers?  When I was in eighth grade, I imagined that adults would have more rational and informed discussions.  Sadly, our political conversation is stuck at an eighth grade level on too many issues.


While most of us pay attention to the unemployment rate, there is another statistic – the separation rate – that measures how many people are unemployed at any one time.  The unemployment can be voluntary or involuntary, and last for a week, a month or a year.  Not surprisingly, younger workers change jobs more frequently and thus have a higher separation rate than older workers.  In the past decade, almost 4% of younger male workers 16 – 24 become unemployed in any one month.  Put another way, in a two year period, all workers in this age group will change jobs.  For prime age workers 25 – 54, the percentage was 1.5%.  In a 2012 publication, Shigeru Fujita, Senior Economist at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, examined historical demographic trends in the separation rate.

On page five of this paper, Mr. Fujita presents what is called a “labor-matching” model that attempts to explain changes in unemployment and wages, primarily from the employer’s point of view. Central elements of this model, familiar to many business owners, include uncertainty of future demand and the costs of finding and training a new worker.  Mr. Fujita examines an aspect that is not included in this model – the degree of uncertainty that the worker, not the employer, faces.  In the JOLTS report, the BLS attempts to measure the number of employees who voluntarily leave their jobs.  These Quits indicate the confidence among workers in finding another job.  The JOLTS report released this week shows an increasing level of confidence but one which has only recently surpassed the lows of the recession in the early 2000s.


Labor Participation
In a more recent paper, Mr. Fujita examines the causes of the decline in the labor participation rate, or the number of people working or looking for work as a percentage of the people who are old enough to work.  As people get older, fewer of them work; the aging of the labor force has long been thought to be the main cause of the decline.  That’s the easy part.  The question is how much does demographics contribute to the decline? What Mr. Fujita has done is the hard work – mining the micro data in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.  He found that 65% of the decline of the past twelve years was due to retirement and disability.  More importantly, he discovered that in the past two years, all of the decline is due to retirement.  The first members of the Boomer generation turned 65 in 2011 so this might come as no surprise.  The surprise is the degree of the effect;  this largest  generational segment of the population dominates the labor force characteristics. During the past two years, discouraged workers and disability claims contributed little or nothing to the decline in the participation rate.  Another significant finding is that relatively few people who retire return to the work force.

In this election year, we will be bombarded with political BS: Obamacare or Obama’s policies are to blame for the weak labor market; the anti-worker attitude of Republicans in Congress are responsible.  Politicians play a shell game with facts, using the same techniques that cons employ to pluck a few dollars from the pockets of tourists in New York City’s Times Square.  Few politicians will state the facts because there is no credit to be taken, no opposing party to blame.  Workers are simply getting older.

In 2011, MIT economist David Autor published a study on the growth of disabiliity claims during the past two decades and the accelerating growth of these claims during this Great Recession.  Mr. Fujita’s analysis reveals an ironic twist – at the same time that Mr. Autor published this study, the growth in disability claims flattened.  The ghost of Rod Serling, the creator and host of the Twilight Zone TV series, may be ready to come on camera and deliver his ironic prologue.


Lower automobile sales accounted for January’s .4% decline in retail sales. Given the continuing severity of the weather in the eastern half of the U.S., it is remarkable that retail sales excluding autos did not decline.  In the fifth report to come in below even the lowest of estimates, industrial production posted negative growth in January.  By the time the Federal Reserve meets in mid-March, the clarity of the economy’s strength will be less obscured by the severe winter weather.


A reader sent me a link to short article on the national debt.  For those of you who need a refresher, the author includes a number of links to common topics and maintains a fairly neutral stance.  I still hear Congresspeople misusing the words “debt,” the accumulation of the deficits of past years, and “deficit,” the current year’s shortfall or the difference between revenues collected and money spent.  Could we have a competency test for all people who wish to serve in Congress?


The House and Senate both passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling this week.  The stock market continued to climb from the valley it fell into two weeks ago and has regained all of the ground it lost since the third week of January.

January Employment and Economic Production

February 9th, 2014

The ISM manufacturing report for January reported a severe decline from the robust readings of past months.  New orders suffered the most, dropping from a strong reading of almost 65 in December to just a bit above the neutral reading of 50.  Prices jumped significantly.  Manufacturing’s drop off in new orders comes on the heels of a similar decline in the service sector in December.  This is the third report in the past thirty days that came in below even low estimates, the other two being pending home sales and December’s employment gains.  At mid week, ISM released their January estimate of the health of the service sector which is the bulk of the economy.  Happily, this showed continued growth, helping to offset concerns about a broad slowdown in the economy.

The CWI that I have been tracking continues to show an overall strength, declining slightly to 58 from the rather vigorous reading of 60 last month.  As I noted a few weeks, this index anticipated a winter lull before picking up energy again in early spring.

A reader had difficulty understanding the wave like graph of the CWI.  I indexed it to a starting base then indexed that to the SP500 average in 1997.  Perhaps this will help visualizing the long term response of the SP500 to underlying economic activity.


ADP reported a gain of 175,000 private jobs in January, below the strong 227,000 job gains of December.  There was only a slight revision to ADP’s previous report, confirming the suspicion of some that the greater flaw lies in the BLS figures for December.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their estimate of 113,000 job gains in January, far below the consensus of about 180,000.  Here’s a story from the Atlantic that captures some of the highlights.  Forgive some of the misspellings, if they are still there by the time you read it.

As I did last month, I’ll show the average of monthly job gains estimated by the BLS and ADP.  ADP does not report government jobs so I’ve just added those in from the BLS report.

The decline below the replacement level of 150,000 may be a temporary response to severe weather conditions in the populous east coast and Chicago region.

The market responded quite favorably to this labor report. A slackening labor market prompted hopes that the Federal Reserve will not accelerate their easing of bond buying.  A large revision of job gains in November was a big positive in the report.  Another positive was the half a million increase in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54.  Men accounted for most of this increase.

The number of people working part time because they can’t find a full time job dropped by a half million but there are still more than 7 million people in this situation.  A 232,000 decrease in the number of long term unemployed was heartening although many lost their unemployment benefits at the end of the year and may have had little choice but to take whatever job they could find.


Doug Elmendorf is the head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that advises the Congress in constructing the budget, making appropriations, and the anticipated or actual economic effects of policy.  In advance of his testimony before the House Budget Committee this past week, the CBO released the highlights of their report. Some talk show hosts and conservative media were trumpeting a loss of 2.3 million jobs due to Obamacare.  In his testimony, Mr. Elmendorf explained that the 2.3 million jobs mentioned in the CBO report are not lost jobs because the CBO does not estimate any reduction in the demand for employees because of Obamacare. The CBO estimated the number of hours that employees would voluntarily reduce their hours in order to meet qualifications for subsidies under Obamacare and divided those total hours by what a full time employee would work in a year.  Since there is a surplus of labor in this country, this voluntary reduction would help those who are either looking for a job or want to work more hours.  The CBO sees no impact on part time jobs that can be attributed to Obamacare.

Republicans and some Independents have repeated the claim that the rich are paying most of the personal income taxes in this country. IRS 2010 data (Table 2 ) doesn’t seem to support that contention.  The top 5% of taxable returns with taxable incomes greater than $200K had taxable income of $1.9 trillion, or 36% of the total $5.3 trillion in taxable income.  On that income, the top 5% paid $513 billion in Federal income tax, 49% of the total.  In a flat tax system, the top 5% would have paid a bit more than $360 billion.

When Republicans use the code words “broaden the tax base” what they mean is that they want a flat tax so that rich people pay the same percentage of tax as poor people.  Several states have such a flat tax system.  To Democrats, a broadening of the tax base means making more of the income of rich taxpayers subject to progressive tax rates.

When Democrats use the code words “paying their fair share” they mean that the rich should pay proportionately more than the additional load of about 32% that they are currently paying.  To Republicans “fair share” means a flat tax.

What the IRS data shows is that the rich are not paying most of the income taxes in this country.  Often tax policy and social benefit programs are lumped together, confusing the issue in the minds of many.  The Tax Foundation did an analysis of the net benefit and expense of taxation and benefit programs.  They report that:

As a group, the bottom 60 percent of American families receive more back in total government spending than they pay in total taxes.

Government tax and spending policies combine to redistribute more than $2 trillion from the top 40 percent of families to the bottom 60 percent.

The methodology that the Tax Foundation uses presumes that everyone benefits equally from public spending like defense, police and the courts.  An alternative assumption that people benefit according to their income results in a $1.2 trillion redistribution, about 40% lower, according to the Tax Foundation.  (Kudos to the Tax Foundation for making both computations.)

What the report does not do – because it is just so hard to do – is calculate age and circumstance related movements of taxpayers from the top 40% to the bottom 60%.  Consider a taxpayer – I’ll call her Linda – making $100,000 who is in the top 40%.  She loses her job and starts collecting unemployment for several months.  Her income now puts her in the bottom 60%.  “Past Linda” was supporting the bottom 60% but “present Linda” is now part of the bottom 60%, according to the methodology used by the Tax Foundation.  Yet if we isolate this one taxpayer, we can say that “past Linda” was actually supporting “present Linda.”  When Linda was making $100K, she presumably paid a lot in income and other taxes, including unemployment taxes paid by her employer.  The Federal Government does not keep records that would allow this kind of inter-temporal analysis.  As a result, we get a distorted view of what is actually happening.

Let’s look at an older taxpayer – I’ll call him Sam – who retires.  Sam was making $80K before he retired and was in the top 40%.  With social Security income and income from savings, Sam now makes $36K in retirement, which puts him in the bottom 60%.  Is Sam being supported by the top 40%?  Statistically he is.  However, most of us would say that Sam is simply living off the benefits that he paid into during his working life.

I appreciate the exhaustive work that the Tax Foundation does but the problem is more complex than they present.  Furthermore, many people are not aware of the difficulties and complications of calculating who supports whom.  Some use this analysis to present the case that the majority of Americans are sucking on the teats of the few well off.  Presidential contender Mitt Romney’s unguarded comment about “the 47%” who are living off the efforts of others did not serve him well in the past election yet a sizeable percentage of voters believe this.

The 16th Amendment passed a century ago allowed the Federal government to tax the income of individuals directly and it was intended to be progressive.  Relatively few paid any income taxes in the first decades after the enactment of the income tax.  Whether one likes the progressivity of the tax code, one has to recognize that the law was intended to be that way when it was passed.

I would like to see the repeal of the 16th Amendment for two reasons: 1) protect individuals from the power of the Federal government; 2) slow the consolidation of money in Washington.  Money brings power and power begets patronage, if not downright graft.  We can never get rid of patronage, only retard the concentration of patronage. Studying 5000 years of history, we have learned that the concentration of power in any political institution ultimately leads to the downfall of that institution.  Only corporations can exist with such a concentration of power and even they sometimes fall when top leadership in a company becomes resistant to change.

Perhaps we could adopt a taxing system where the Federal government taxes the states based on the population in each state.  If a state has 10% of the country’s population, then they would owe 10% of any tax used to replace the current income tax.  Let the states determine how they will collect the money.  Racism has been a constant nemesis of this country and legal protections could be enacted which would prevent states from taxing citizens based on race or sex.  Head taxes have a tawdry reputation because they were often used to disenfranchise poorer voters.  If the population count of a state was simply used as an allotment mechanism and not applied directly to each citizen, I think that this could be a fairer and safer system of taxation.  Certainly, legislation could be passed preventing the denial of rights to a citizen based on a tax.

Could Doug Elmendorf and his cohorts at the CBO build a model based on such a system?



And we’re talking about nine million individuals who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. They are responsible for a significant amount of spending in both programs — approximately 46% of Medicaid and close to a quarter of Medicare spending annually.  Estimates range that that is anywhere from 300 to $350 billion a year total that we’re [CMS] spending. 
Melanie Bella, Director of the Federal Healthcare Office at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Federal Coordinated Healthcare Office Conference 11/1/2010

Diminished Expectations

February 3rd, 2014

The SP500 has been hovering over a support trendline in the 1760-1775 range, with buyers coming in at 1775.  At 1750, the market would have corrected 5%, a fairly normal occurrence.  Market watchers have been concerned that the market has not experienced one of these small “shaking of the tree” corrections since May/June of 2012.  Disappointing earnings and revenue reports from bellweather companies, together with selling pressure on some emerging market currencies, have made traders nervous.

The market is composed of buyers and sellers responding within varying time frames.  In a short to mid term time horizon, one person might pay more attention to turbulence in emerging markets or the latest corporate reports.  A mid to long term investor might pay more attention to rising industrial production, healthy GDP numbers, consumer spending and income, and declining unemployment.


Apple forecast lower than expected revenues for the coming quarter in the China market.  The announcement prompted an 8% decline in the company’s stock.  Facebook reported blow out revenue growth of 63% in the past quarter, causing the stock to rise about 16%.  FB’s active user base has more than doubled in two years.  Despite the robust growth, the sky high valuation of the company reminds me of some internet stocks in the late 1990s.  The stock has a Price to Sales – not Price to Earnings – ratio of about 15 to 1.  Google has a track record of strong revenue and earnings growth and sports a richly valued price to sales ratio of 6.4.  Does Facebook’s short track record deserve a valuation that is more than twice Google’s?  In 2000, Microsoft had a price-sales ratio of 23 to 1. Fourteen years later, Microsoft’s stock sells for 30% less than it did in 2000.  In 2000, Cisco had a price to sales ratio of 30 to 1.  Cisco’s revenues were growing 50% a year.  “The stock is cheap,” some said.  Fourteen years later, Cisco sells for less than a third of what it did in the heady days of rapid growth.  A word of caution to long term investors.

Amazon reported “only” a 20% increase in quarterly revenue during the busy 4th quarter Christmas season. This is five times the sales growth of the overall retail industry so a casual observer might think that the stock enjoyed a healthy bump up in price, right?  Wrong. After rising 50% over the past year, the company’s stock was priced to perfection. The disappointing growth particularly in overseas markets prompted a lot of selling and an 8% decline in price on Friday.

As I noted last week, many retailers will report quarterly earnings in February.  Many companies get a sense of the bottom line that they will report before the official release of quarterly data.  If there are material differences between consensus expectations and forecast results, a company will issue a revised forward guidance.  Wal-Mart did so this past week, revising its revenue and earnings forecast down for the fourth quarter and lowering earnings projections for the coming year.  The company cited a much greater than forecast impact from November’s reduction of the food stamp program.  The severe storms in December also had a material impact on sales.

In the past two months, Wal-Mart’ stock has declined 8%.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  The market value of Apple and Amazon declined 8% in one day.  It takes two months for Wal-Mart’s stock to decline by the same percentage.  Individuals who invest in companies like Apple and Amazon have to be able to take abrupt market gyrations in stride.  Companies are essentially stories.  Some like Apple and Amazon are stories of growth.  There comes a time when the story changes, as it did for Microsoft and Cisco more than a decade ago.  Apple’s story has been “under construction” in the past 18 months. Since the beginning of 2008, Wal-Mart’s stock has risen 56%, Apple’s is up 150%, and Amazon’s market price has soared more than 6 times.  Growth companies offer rich rewards for the investor who has the time to  follow the story, but it can be difficult to know when the story is changing.

During the past 3 weeks, Home Depot has lost about 6% after gaining 35% since the beginning of 2013.  This giant has one foot in the home construction and remodeling sectors, one foot in the retail sector.  The decline reflects lowered near term expectations for both construction and retail.  Consumer spending has risen steadily but incomes are flat.


December’s report of new homes sold was disappointing.  After rising above an annual level of 450,000 in the fall, sales have fallen closer to the 400,000 mark.

 Some blame the particularly harsh December in the east, some blame the weak labor report released in early January, others blame the low supply, still others blame rising mortgage rates. The Case Shiller home price index shows a year over year gain of almost 14% in metro area homes, indicating relatively healthy demand.  However, the latest Consumer Confidence survey reports a decline in the number of people planning to buy a home.  On an ominous note, pending home sales in December declined more than 8%, the worst monthly decline in almost four years.  Without a doubt, the severe winter weather in the eastern U.S. was a big factor but it is difficult to assess how much of a change.  This is the second report – employment was the first – that was far below even the lowest of estimates.

The link between employment and new home sales is counterintuitive; changes in new home sales anticipate changes in employment.

In a 2007 paper presented at a Federal Reserve conference, economist Ed Leamer demonstrated that changes in residential investment, a relatively small component of the economy, indicate coming recessions and recoveries.  The National Assn of Homebuilders estimates that each new home generates a bit more than three full time jobs.

Residential investment includes new homes, remodels, furniture and appliances.  Eventually residential investment reaches a point where it is contributing too much to the economy. As that percentage begins to correct to more normal levels, the contraction tugs on the total of economic growth.

As you can see in the chart above, a sustainable “sweet spot” is in the 4 to 4-1/2% of GDP range but residential investment is still less than 3% of GDP.  In past recessions, residential investment has helped recovery.  This time is different.  Housing’s less than normal contribution to the nation’s GDP has dampened overall growth.


The first estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter was a rather remarkable 3.1%.  Although this was in line with estimates, I was concerned that the severe winter weather in the east might have more of a negative impact.  A version of GDP that reflects domestic consumption, Final Sales of Domestic Product, showed a modest 2.1% growth in the 4th quarter, reflecting the impact of the weather, I think. The third quarter growth rate was revised to 4.1%, up substantially from the initial estimate of 2.8%.  The hope is that this is now a 4% growth economy and the first quarter of this year may hold some welcome surprises as delayed economic activity in the 4th quarter is rolled into this year’s first quarter.  As I noted a few weeks ago, the wave like trend of the CWI composite index of manufacturing and non-manufacturing indicated a slight lull in these winter months before another peak in early to mid-spring.


Consumer Confidence rose to 80, the lower bound of what I consider healthy.  This index fell below 80 in the early part of 2008 and did not get above that mark till this past summer, then fell back in the fall.  A separate Consumer Sentiment survey from the U. of Michigan showed a similar reading at slightly above 81.


January’s monthly employment numbers will be released next Friday.  I ran a chart of those not in the labor force as a percent of those working.  Thirty years ago, the economy was coming out of the most severe employment recession since the Depression.  It is rather disturbing that this ratio continues to climb to the nose bleed levels of that recession thirty years ago.


The harsh winter weather may be affecting consumers more than businesses.  Chicago and the upper Midwest region got creamed with cold snap after cold snap in December yet industrial production figures for the month are still robust, declining somewhat from the incredibly strong readings of the past few months.