Economic Porridge

August 31, 2014

As summer comes to a close and the sun drifts south for the winter, the porridge is not too hot or too cold.


Coincident Index

The index of Leading Indicators came out last week, showing increased strength in the economy.  Despite its name, this  index has been notoriously poor as a predictor of economic activity.  The Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve compiles an index of Coincident Activity in the 50 states, then combines that data into an index for the country.

This index is in the healthy zone and rising. When the year-over-year percent change in this index drops below 2.5%, the economy has historically been on the brink of recession.  The index turns up near the end of the recession, and until the index climbs back above the 2.5% level, an investor should be watchful for any subsequent declines in the index.

As with any historical series, we are looking at revised data.  When this index was published in mid-2011, the percent change in the index was -7% at the recession’s end in mid-2009.  Notice that the percent drop in the current chart is a bit less than 5%.  This may be due to revisions in the data or the methodology used to compile the index.


Disposable Income

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) produces a number of annual series, which it updates through the year as more complete data from the previous year is received.  2013 per capita real disposable income, or what is left after taxes, was revised upward by .2% at the end of July but still shows a negative drop in income for 2013.  While all recessions are not accompanied by a negative change in disposable income, a negative change has coincided with ALL recessions since the series began at the start of the 1930s Depression.

Many positive economic indicators make it highly unlikely that we are either in or on the brink of recession.  Clearly something has changed.  Something that has routinely not been counted in disposable personal income is having some positive effect on the economy.  In 2004, the BEA published a paper comparing the methodology they use to count personal income and a measure of income, called money income, that the Census Bureau uses.  What both measures don’t count in their income measures are capital gains.

Unlike BEA’s measure of personal income, CPS money income excludes employer contributions to government employee retirement plans and to private health and pension funds, lumps-sum payments except those received as part of earnings, certain in-kind transfer payments—such as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps—and imputed income. Money income includes, but personal income excludes, personal contributions for social insurance, income from government employee retirement plans and from private pensions and annuities, and income from interpersonal transfers, such as child support. (Source)

Analysis (Excel file) of 2012 tax forms by the IRS shows $620 billion in capital gains that year, about 5% of the $12,384 billion in disposable personal income counted by the BEA.  An acknowledged flaw in the counting of disposable income is that the total reflects the taxes that individuals pay on the capital gains (deducted from income) but not the capital gains that generated that taxable income.  Although 2013 data is not yet available from the IRS, total personal income taxes collected rose 16%.  We can suppose that the 30% rise in the stock market generated substantial capital gains income.



Every year the Federal Government collects taxes and spends money.  Most years, the spending is more than the taxes collected – a deficit.  The public debt is the accumulation of those annual deficits.  It does not include money “borrowed” from the Social Security trust fund as well as other intra-governmental debt, which add another third to the public debt.  (Treasury FAQ)  This larger number is called the gross debt.  At the end of 2012, the public debt was more than GDP for the first time.

The Federal Reserve owns about 15% of the public debt.  But wait, you might say, isn’t the Federal Reserve just part of the government?  Well, yes it is.  Even the so-called public debt is not so public.  How did the Federal Reserve buy that  government debt?  By magic – digital magic.  There is a lot of deliberation, of course, but the actual buying of government debt is done with a few dozen keystrokes.  Back in ye olden days, a government with a spending problem would have to melt down some of its gold reserves, add in some cheaper metal to the mix and make new coins.  It is so much easier now for a government to go to war or to give out goodies to businesses and people.

Despite the high debt level, the percent of federal revenues to pay the interest on that debt is relatively low, slightly above the average percentage in the 1950s and 1960s but far below the nosebleed percentages of the 1980s and 1990s.

As the boomer generation continues to retire, the Federal Government is going to exchange intra-governmental debt, i.e. the money the government owes to the Social Security trust funds, for public debt.  As long as 1) the world continues to buy this debt,  and 2) interest rates stay low, the impact of the interest cost on the annual budget is reasonable.  However, the higher the debt level, the more we depend on these conditions being true.


Watch the Percentages

As the SP500 touched and crossed the 2000 mark this week, some investors wondered whether the herd is about to go over the cliff.  The blue line in the chart below is the 10 month relative strength (RSI) of the SP500.  The red line is the 10 month RSI of a Vanguard fund that invests in long term corporate and government bonds.  Readings above 70 indicate a strong market for the security. A reading of 50 is neutral and 30 indicates a weak market for the security. The longer the RSI stays above 70, the greater the likelihood that the security is getting over-bought.

Long term bonds tend to move in the opposite direction of the stock market.  While they may both muddle along in the zone between 30 and 70, it is unusual for both of them to be particularly strong or weak at the same time.  We see a period in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis when they were both strong.  They were both weak in the fall of 2008 when the global financial crisis hit.  Long term bonds are again about to share the strong zone with the stock market.

Let’s zoom out even further to get a really long perspective.  Since November 2013, the SP500 index has been more than 30% above its 4 year average – a relatively rare occurrence.  It happened in 1954 – 1956 after the end of the Korean War, again in December of 1980, during the summer months of 1983, the beginning of 1986 to the October 1987 crash, and from the beginning of 1996 through September 2000.

In the summer of 2000, the fall from grace was rather severe and extended.  In most cases, including the crash of 1987, losses were minimal a year after the index dropped back below the 30% threshold.  When the market “gets ahead of itself” by this much, it indicates an optimism brought on by some distortion.  It does not mean that an investor should panic but it is likely that returns will be rather flat over the following year.

The index rarely gets 30% below its 4 year average and each time these have proven to be excellent buying opportunities.  The fall of 1974, the winter months of 2002 – 2003, and the big daddy of them all, March 2009, when the index fell almost 40% below its 4 year average.



The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released the 2nd estimate of 2nd quarter GDP growth and surprised to the upside, revising the inital 4.0% annual growth rate to 4.2%.  As I noted a month ago, the first estimate of 2nd quarter growth included a 1.7% upward kick because of a build up of inventory, which seemed a bit high.  The BEA did revise inventory growth down to 1.4% but the decrease was more than offset primarily by increases in nonresidential investment. A version of GDP called Final Sales of Domestic Product does not include inventory changes.  As we can see in the graph below, the year-over-year percent gain is in the Goldilocks zone – not strong, but not weak.

New orders for durable goods that exclude the more volatile transportation industries, airlines and automobiles, showed a healthy 6.5% y-o-y increase in July.  Like the Final Sales figures above, this is sustainable growth.



Economic indicators are positive but market prices may have already anticipated most of the positive, leaving investors with little to gain over the following twelve months.

Housing and Bond Trends

August 24, 2014


The week began with a bang as July’s Housing Market index notched its second consecutive reading of +50, growing a few points more than the 53 index of last month.  Readings above 50 indicate expansion in the market.  The index, compiled by the National Assn of Homebuilders, is a composite of sales, buyer traffic and prospective sales of both new and existing homes.  The index first sank below 50 in January and stayed in that contractionary zone for a few months before rising again in June and July.

Housing Starts rose back above the 1 million mark but the big gains were in multi-family dwellings.  Secondly, this number needs to be put in a long term perspective. We simply are not forming new households at the same pace as we did for the past half century.

After monthly declines in May and June, new home sales popped up almost 16% in July.  Existing home sales rose in July but have now shown 9 consecutive months of year-over-year decreases.

The number of existing home sales is at the same level as 1999-2000.  On a per capita basis, we are about 11-12% below the rather stable level of those years, before the housing bubble really erupted in the 2000s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, households grew annually by 2.1% (Census Bureau data).  That growth slowed to 1.4% in the 1980s and 1990s and has declined in the past decade to 1% per year.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the number of households with children headed by women exploded by over 3% per year, leading to a growing economic disparity among households.  During the 1980s, growth slowed but still hit 2.5%.  In the past two decades, this growth has stabilized at 1.2 to 1.3% per year, just a bit above the total rate of growth of all households.

The trend of slower growth in household formation shows no signs of changing in the near term.  We can expect that this will curtail any historically strong growth in the housing industry.  The price of an ETF of homebuilders, XHB, has plateaued since the spring of 2013.  The price has tripled from the dark days of 2009 but is unlikely to reach the formerly lofty heights of the mid-$40s anytime soon.


Interest Rates

As the long days of summer wane and children return to school, central bankers gather in the majestic mountains of  Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Let’s crank up the wayback machine and return to those yester-years when fear and despondency continued to grip the hearts of many around the world.  In August 2010, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, announced that the Fed would continue to buy Treasuries and other bond instruments to maintain a balance sheet of about $2 trillion dollars, which was already far above normal levels. Bernanke hinted that the Fed would be ready to further expand the program should the economic recovery show signs of faltering. This speech would later be viewed as a pre-announcement of what would be dubbed QE2, or Quantitative Easing Part II, which the Fed announced in November 2010.  The promise of Fed support helped fuel a 30% rise in the market from August 2010 to the spring of 2011.

Like the announcement of a new pope, investors look toward the mountain and try to read the smoke signals rising up from this annual confab.  Financial gurus practiced at linear regressions and Bayesian probabilities struggle to  parse the words of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen. Did she use the word “likely” or “probably” in her speech? What coefficient of probability should we assign to the two words?  Did she use the present perfect progressive or the past perfect progressive verb tense?

Here’s the gist of Ms. Yellen’s speech – essentially the same gist that she has given in several testimonies before Congress:

monetary policy ultimately must be conducted in a pragmatic manner that relies not on any particular indicator or model, but instead reflects an ongoing assessment of a wide range of information in the context of our ever-evolving understanding of the economy.

Investors like simple forecasting tools – thresholds like the unemployment rate or the rate of inflation.  In 2012 and 2013, former chairman Ben Bernanke reminded investors that thresholds are benchmarks that may guide but do not rule the Fed’s decision making.  Ms. Yellen reiterated several points:

Estimates of slack necessitate difficult judgments about the magnitudes of the cyclical and structural influences affecting labor market variables, including labor force participation, the extent of part-time employment for economic reasons, and labor market flows, such as the pace of hires and quits….the aging of the workforce and other demographic trends, possible changes in the underlying degree of dynamism in the labor market, and the phenomenon of “polarization”–that is, the reduction in the relative number of middle-skill jobs.

 Each month I have encouraged readers to go beyond the employment report headlines, to look at these various  components of the labor market.  The Fed uses a complex model of 19 components:

This broadly based metric supports the conclusion that the labor market has improved significantly over the past year, but it also suggests that the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions.

Long term bond prices are at all time highs, leading some to question the reward to risk ratio at these price levels.  Prices took a 10% – 12% hit in mid-2013 in anticipation of a rate hike in 2014, indicating that investors are that jumpy. Since the beginning of this year, prices have risen from those lows of late last year.  Will 2015 be the year when the Fed finally begins to raise interest rates? Investors have been asking that question for four years.

Since the spring of 2009, 5-1/2 years ago, an index of long term corporate and government bonds (VBLTX as a proxy) has risen 65%.  From the spring of 2000 to the spring of 2009, a period of nine years, this index gained the same percentage.  Perhaps too much too fast?  Only time will tell.



Housing growth will be constrained by the slower growth in household formation.  Further valuation increases in long term bonds seem unlikely.

Sales, Savings and Volatility

August 17, 2014

This week I’ll take a look at the latest retail sales figures, a less publicized volatility indicator, a comparison of BLS projections of the Labor Force Participation Rate, and the adding up of personal savings.


Retail Sales

Two economic reports which have a major influence on the market’s mood are the monthly employment and retail sales reports.  After a disappointing but healthy employment report this month, July’s retail sales numbers were disappointing, showing no growth for the second month in a row.  The year-over-year growth is 3.7%, which, after inflation, is about 1.5% real growth.  Excluding auto sales (blue line in the graph below), sales growth is 3.1, or about 1% real growth, the same as population growth.

As we can see in the graph below, the growth in auto sales has kicked in an additional 1/2% in growth during this recovery period. Total growth has been weakening for the past two years despite strong growth in auto sales, a sign of an underlying lack of consumer power.

Real disposable income rebounded in the first six months of this year after negative growth in the last half of 2013 but there does not seem to be a corresponding surge in sales.


Labor Force Projections

While we are on the subject of telling the future…

All we need are 8 million more workers in the next two years to meet Labor Force projections made in 2007 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).   8 million / 24 months = 300,000 a month net jobs gained. Hmmm…probably not.  In 2007, the BLS forecast slowing growth in the labor force in the decade 2006 – 2016.  Turned out it was a lot slower. Estimates then for 2016 projected a total of 164 million employed and unemployed.  In July 2014, the BLS put the current figure at 156 million employed.  The Great, or at least Big, Recession caused the BLS to revise their forecast a number of times.  The current estimate has a target date of 2022 to hit the magic 164 million.  In other words, we are 6 years behind schedule.

The Participation Rate is the ratio of the Civilian Labor Force to the Civilian Non-Institutional Population aged 16 and above.  The equation might be written:  (E + UI) / A = PR, where E = Employed, UI = Unemployed and Actively Looking for Work, and A = people older than 16 who are not in the military or in prison or in some institution that would prevent them from making a choice whether to work or not.  As people – the A divisor in the equation – live longer, the participation rate gets lower.  It ain’t rocket science, it’s math, as baseball legend Yogi Berra might have said.

The Participation Rate started rising in the 1970s as more women entered the work force, then peaked in the years 1997 – 2000.  Prior to the recession of 2001, the pattern of the participation rate was predictable, declining during an economic downturn, then rising again as the economy recovered.  The recovery after the recession of 2001 was different.  The rate continued to decline even as the economy strengthened.

In 2007, the BLS expected further declines in the rate from a historically high 67% in 2000 to 65.5% in 2016.  In 2012, the rate stood at 63.7%.  Current projections from the BLS estimate that the rate will drop to 61.6% by 2022.

Much of the decline in the participation rate was attributed to demographic causes in the 2007 BLS projections:

“Age, sex, race, and ethnicity are among the main factors responsible for the changes in the labor force participation rate.” (Pg. 38)

Comparing estimates by some smart and well trained people over a number of years should remind us that it is extremely difficult to predict the future.  We may mislead ourselves into thinking that we are better than average predictors.  Our jobs may seem fairly secure until they are not; a 5 year CD will get about 5 – 6% until it doesn’t; the stock market will sell for about 15x earnings until it doesn’t; bonds are safe until they’re not.

The richest people got rich and stay rich because they know how unpredictable the world really is.  They hire managers to shield them – hopefully – from that unpredictability.  They fund political campaigns to provide additional insurance against the willy-nilly of public policy.  They fight for government subsidies to provide a safety cushion, to offset portfolio losses and mitigate risk.  What do many of us who are not so rich do to insure ourselves against volatility?  Put our money in a safe place like a savings account or CD.  In real purchasing power, that costs us 1 – 2%, the difference between inflation and the paltry interest rate paid on those insured accounts.  In addition, we can pay a hidden “insurance” fee of 4% in foregone returns by being out of the stock and bond markets.  We stay safe – and not-rich.  Rich people manage to stay safe – and rich – by not doing what the not-rich people do to stay safe.  Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better.



For you China watchers out there, Bloomberg economists have compiled a monetary index from several key factors of monetary policy.  After hovering near decade lows, China’s central bank has considerably loosened lending in the past two months.  The chart shows the huge influx of monetary stimulus that China provided in 2009 and 2010 as the developed world tried to climb up out of the pit of the world wide financial crisis.

The tug of war in China is the same as in many countries.  Politicians want growth.  Central banks worry about inflation.  The rise in this index indicates that the central bank is either 1) bowing to political pressure, or 2) feels that inflationary pressures are low enough that they can afford to loosen the monetary reins.  As is often the case with monetary policy, it is probably some combination of the two.

Personal Savings Rate

Over the past two decades, economists have noted the low level of savings by American workers.  While economists debate methodologies and implications, politicians crank up their spin machines. More conservative politicians cite the low savings rate as an indication of a lack of personal responsibilty.  As workers become ever more dependent on government programs, they do not feel the need to save.  Over on the left side of the political aisle, liberals cite the low savings rate as a sign of the growing divide between the middle class and the rich.  Many families can not afford to save for a house, or their retirement, or put aside money for their children’s education.  We need more programs to correct the economic inequalities, they say.

While there might be some truth in both viewpoints, the plain fact is that the Personal Savings Rate doesn’t measure savings as most of us understand the term.  A more accurate title for what the government calls a savings rate would be “Delayed Consumption Rate.”  The methodology used by the Dept. of Commerce counts whatever is not spent by consumers as savings.  “To consume now or consume later, that is the question.”

If a worker puts money into a 401K each month, the employer’s matching contribution is not counted.  If a consumer saves up for a down payment for a house, that is included in savings.  When she takes money out of savings to buy the house, that is a negative savings.  The house has no value in the “savings” calculation.  Many investors have a large part of their savings in mutual funds through personal accounts and 401K plans at work.  Capital gains in those funds are not counted as savings.  (Federal Reserve paper) In short, it is a poor metric of the aggregate behavior of consumers.  Some economists will point out that the savings rate indicates a level of demand that consumers have in reserve but because a significant portion of saved income is not counted, it fails to properly account for that either.


Volatility – A section for mid-term traders

No one can accurately predict the future but we can examine the guesses that people make about the future.  In his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds (excerpt here) James Surowiecki relates a number of studies in which people are asked to guess answers to intractable problems, like how many jelly beans are in a jar.  As would be expected, respondents rarely get it right.  The surprising find was that the average of guesses was remarkably close to the correct answer.

Through the use of option contracts, millions of traders try to guess the market’s direction or insure themselves against a change in price trend.  A popular and often quoted gauge of the fear in the market is the VIX, a statistical measure of the implied volatility of option contracts that expire in the next thirty days.  When this fear index is below 20, it indicates that traders do not anticipate abrupt changes in stock prices.

Less mentioned is the 3 month fear index, VXV (comparison from CBOE). Because of its longer time horizon, it might more properly be called a worry index.  Many casual investors have neither the time, inclination or resources to digest and analyze the many economic and financial conditions that impact the market.  So what could be easier than taking a cue from traders preoccupied with the market?  Below is a historical chart of the 3 month volatility index.

Historically, when this gauge has crossed above the 20 mark for a couple of weeks, it indicates an elevated state of worry among traders.  The 48 month or 4 year average of the index is 19.76.  Currently, we are at a particularly tranquil level of 14.42.

When traders get really spooked, the 10 day average of this anxiety index will climb to nosebleed heights as it did during the financial crisis.  As the market calms down, the average will drift back into the 20s range, an opportunity for a mid-term trader to get cautiously back into the water, alert for any reversal of sentiment.



Retail sales have flat-lined this summer but y-o-y gains are respectable.  So-so income growth constrains many consumers.  The 3 month volatility index is a quick and dirty summary of the mid-term anxiety level of traders.  A comparison of BLS labor force projections shows the difficulty of making accurate predictions.  The personal savings rate under-counts savings.

Summer Swoon

August 10, 2014

Consistent Investing

After two unsettled weeks and a 6% drop in the market, let’s revisit a prediction made in August 2010 – impending doom.  Even when doom does show up as it did in late 2008, there are inevitably predictions of even more doom.  When doom does not show up as scheduled, it is a bubble which portends catastrophic doom.  Those who sound a cautionary note do not seem to get the same headlines as the doom predictors.

Each year the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) analyzes the activity of more than 20 million 401(K) participants.  In their most recent analysis of 2012 data,   EBRI found that a third of participants are “consistent participants”, i.e. employees who participate regularly in 401(K) programs despite the market environment. The portfolios of consistent participants overwhelmingly outperformed the two-thirds who were not as consistent.

Analysis of a consistent group of 401(k) participants highlights the impact of ongoing participation in 401(k) plans. At year-end 2012, the average account balance among consistent participants was 67 percent higher than the average account balance among all participants” in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database. The consistent group’s median balance was almost three times [my emphasis] the median balance across all participants at year-end 2012.

This data did not include the 30% rise in the stock market in 2013, which only reinforces the point – it pays to participate regularly in a 401(K).   EBRI found that the superior returns of consistent participants was not due to any asset selection.  Their allocation was about the same as the entire group, about 60/40 stocks and bonds.


Investor Sentiment

An indicator of investor sentiment is the price reaction to upside and downside earnings reports.  If a company reports earnings that are better than average expectations, that is an upside.  Conversely, if a company’s quarterly earnings fall below mean estimates, that is a downside. As the majority of companies in the SP500 have reported earnings for the 2nd quarter that ended in June, FactSet compared investor reaction to this quarter’s  earnings surprises with the average reaction over the past five years.  The sentiment overall has been negative.  There has been little positive reaction to positive earnings surprises and a more than average negative reaction to disappointing earnings reports.


Target Funds

Some funds, called Target Funds, designate a specific year when an investor will need to start drawing some or all of the money from the investment.  As the fund approaches its target year, the fund adjusts its allocation to a more conservative blend of bonds and stocks.  A fund with a target year that is 12 – 15 years in the future may have a stock bond mix of 75/25.  A fund with a target date 5 years in the future may have a 60/40 stock bond mix. Vanguard’s VTHRX (2030) and VTWNX (2020) are examples which illustrate the difference in allocations.

The appeal of “set it and forget it” has helped these funds grow in popularity.  According to the Investment Company Institute (ICI) the number of target funds has grown from 6 in 1995 to almost 500 in 2013 (Table 53)  At the end of 2008, assets in target funds totaled $160 billion.  Five years later, in 2013, total assets had almost quadrupled to $618 billion.  New investment in these funds peaked in 2007 at $56 billion, then fell to $42 billion per year from 2008 through 2011.  New investment rose again to $52 billion in 2012 and 2013.

Because these funds have a blend of stocks and bonds, most investors would assume that the risk adjusted return (RAR) would be better than a fund fully invested in the stock market.  The Sharpe ratio, a common measure of RAR, computes a ratio of excess return to the volatility of the investment.  Excess return is the extra amount an investment earns compared to a risk free investment like Treasury bills.  If an investment has a Sharpe ratio of 1, then the investor got what they paid for in worry.  A ratio greater than 1 means that the investor got more than they paid for.  The 5 year Sharpe ratio of the SP500 is 1.24, meaning that an investor got about 25% more return than the volatility of the market. Keep in mind that the bull market is almost 5-1/2 years old. Over ten years, the Sharpe ratio of the SP500 was less than .5, meaning that an investor got half as much return for the amount of worry it cost them.  Many target funds do not have a long enough history to compute a ten year ratio.

An investor comparing the 5 year Sharpe ratio of their target fund may be surprised if their fund has a lower RAR than the SP500. Check the expense ratios on the fund.  Target funds that use indexes as their underlying investment may charge as little as $170 per year on a $100,000 investment in the fund. Some funds may charge $800 or more on the same investment. Lastly, what is the correlation between a target fund and the stock market?  A correlation of 1.00 means that the prices of two investments move in lockstep. let’s an investor compare the one year correlation of their fund with the SP500. A target fund with a correlation of .99, a high expense ratio and a lower than market Sharpe ratio might lead an investor to question the value of that fund.


Constant Weighted Purchasing Index

As anticipated, ISM reported strong numbers in July for both the manufacturing and service sectors.  Employment and New Orders, two key components of the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), were robust in the manufacturing sector at a reading near 65.  In the service sectors, which comprise most of the nation’s economy, employment did not get the same high marks but remains strong at 56.  The combination of new orders and employment in the services sector stands just below 60.

The composite of both manufacturing and services rose to 63.3, continuing the upward climb in this part of a cyclic trend that has been in place for more than three years.

If this pattern continues, we could expect further strong reports into the fall, before declining in October or November.



Production and employment numbers are strong, causing some worry that the Federal Reserve may raise interest rates sooner than mid 2015.  A growing number of mid and short term investors feel that any near term upside has already been priced into the market.

Employment, GDP and Construction

August 3, 2014


The employment report for July was moderately strong but below expectations.  Year-over-year growth in employment edged up to 1.9%, a level it first touched in March of 2012.

The unemployment rate ticked up a notch after ticking down two notches last month.  Notches can distract a long term investor from the underlying trend, which is positive.  Comparing the year-over-year percent change in the unemployment rate gives a good overall view of the economy and  the mid term prospects for the stock market.

There was some slight improvement in the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate this month.  The decline in the participation rate has been worrisome.  When we view the unemployment rate as a percentage of the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate, we do see a continuing decline in this ratio, which is positive.  From early 2002 to early 2003, the market continued its decline even after the end of a fairly mild recession.  Employment gains were meager, prompting concerns of a double dip recession. Should this ratio start to increase over several months, investors would be wise to start digging their foxholes.

Employment numbers can hide weaknesses in the labor market. After falling to a low of 7.2 million this February, people working part time because they can’t find full time work has climbed up 300,000 to 7.5 million.  The good news is that the ranks of involuntary part-timers has dropped by 700,000, or 8.5%, from July 2013 to this July.

Employment in service occupations makes up almost 20% of the work force and usually peaks in July of each year after a January trough.  The numbers come from the monthly survey of business payrolls so it affects the job gains number to some degree, depending on the seasonal adjustments.  I expected this month’s report to show the normal pattern, rising up at least 50,000 from June’s total of 26.54 million.  I was surprised to see that employment in this composite had dropped by 170,000 in July.

Unlike the majority of years, this year’s trough occurred in February, one month later than usual.  This may be weather related.  1998, 2003, 2005, 2011 were also years in which the trough occurred one month late. Over the past twenty years, the peak has always come in July – until this year.

Hourly wages have grown 2% in the past twelve months, meaning that there is no gain after inflation.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that weekly earnings for production and non-salaried employees this July bested July 2013 earnings by 2.9%.


Auto Sales

July’s vehicle sales slipped 2.4% from June’s annualized pace of 16.9 million vehicles.  Robust vehicle sales are due in part to an increase in sub-prime loans, which have grown to 30% of new car loans.  A few weeks ago, the N.Y. Times published an article describing some auto loan application shenanigans.

The casual reader may not understand the significance of numbers in the millions so I created a chart showing numbers in the hundreds.  The manufacturing of cars is part of a broader category called durable goods.  If a 100 workers are employed making durable goods, we would like to see at least 11 of them making cars or parts for cars.  In a healthy economy, 5 people out of 100 buy a car or truck.  The chart below shows the relationship between the number of people buying cars and the percent of durable goods workers making cars.  The chart is a bit “busy” but I hope the reader can see that, despite talk of an auto bubble that could crash the market, the percent of the population buying cars is just barely above the minimum healthy level.

There may be a bubble in auto financing but not auto sales.  Secondly, a vehicle can be repossessed and resold much more easily than evicting a delinquent homeowner.



The first estimate of 2nd quarter GDP was 4% annualized growth, above the 3% consensus expectations.  Under the hood, we see that 1.7% of that 4% is a build up of inventories.  This mirrors the 1.7% negative change in inventories in the first quarter, as I noted in last month’s blog.  It is not a coincidence and should remind us that these are human beings making a first estimate of the entire economic activity of a country.

Let’s put this early estimate in perspective.  The year-over-year percent growth is 2.4%, above the 1.6% average y-o-y growth of the past ten years.  Let’s get out our magic wand and take away the recessionary four quarters in 2008 and two quarters in 2009.  Let’s add some good numbers in late 2003 and early 2004 as the economy recovered from the dot com boom period.  Presto chango!  Well, not so presto.  We see that the average over these 37 quarters, just a bit more than 9 years, is still only 2.3%.

From 1970 – 2007, the average is 3.1%, or almost double the 1.6% average of the past ten years.  The Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world have employed the tactics at their disposal to avert deflation and to spur lending.  While low interest rates and bond purchases have accomplished some of those goals, they have created some distortions in the markets, putting upward pressure on both equity and bond valuations.  Higher stock prices pressure companies to produce the profits – on paper, at least – that will justify the increased valuation.  In the past this has induced some companies to pursue a course of – an appropriate term might be “aggressive” accounting – to meet investor demands.

So this first estimate of GDP for the 2nd quarter is slightly above the magic wand average of the past decade and way above the real ten year average.  Not bad.  I’m guessing that the second estimate of 2nd quarter GDP, released near the  end of August, will be revised downward but even if it is, economic growth is better than average.


Construction Spending and Employment

Construction added 20,000 jobs in July, and are up 3.6% above July of 2013.  Total Construction spending includes residential and commercial buildings, public infrastructure and transportation. Spending in June declined almost 2% from a strong May but is up more than 5% from last year.  A casual glance at the spending numbers might lead one to observe that, after the housing boom and bust, the construction sector is on the mend.

The underlying reality is that further improvements in construction spending may be modest.  The chart below shows real, or inflation adjusted, per capita spending.  What was good enough in 1994 may be equally good in 2014 and beyond.

Residential construction has leveled off just slightly below what is probably a sustainable zone of $1200 to $1600 per person spending. At the height of the housing boom, per person spending was almost twice that of the midline $1400 per person.  Corrections to such severe imbalances are painful.

While many of us think that the boom was all in the residential sector, per person construction of public infrastructure had its own boom, growing almost 50% from the levels of the mid-90s.  Some economists and politicians continue to advocate more public construction as a Keynesian stimulus but we can see below that real per-capita public spending today is slightly more than the levels of the mid-1990s.

Spending on public infrastructure including highways helped buffer the downturn in residential construction.  As a percent of total construction spending, it is still contributing more than its share to the total.  If residential construction were just a bit stronger, this percentage would drop to a more normal range closer to 25%.

Workers in their thirties now came of age at a time when “normal” in the construction sector was far above normal. Policy makers grew to believe that this elevated level of spending was evidence of a strong economy.  They believed they were masters of the economy, ushering in a new normal of prudent fiscal policy that worked in tandem with assertive government policy to promote housing investment that would lift up those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Today we don’t hear as much from those masters of economic and social engineering.  Their names include former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, former President George Bush, former Congressman Barney Frank, and current Congresswoman Maxine Waters.  Each of them might point to the mis-managers who helped pump up the housing balloon.  They include former Fannie Mae head Franklin Raines, and Kathleen Corbett, the former president of the ratings agency Standard and Poors which slapped a pristine AAA rating on the good and the bad. “Kathleen is an advocate of best practices, fiscal responsibility and effective management” reads Ms. Corbett’s page  at the New Canaan Town Council.

Then there are the crooks who knew what their companies were doing was dangerous, if not wrong. Topping that list is Angelo Mozilo, the head of Countrywide Financial, the largest originator of sub-prime loans.  “Crooks” is the term Mr. Mozilo once used to describe companies who wrote sub-prime mortgages.  If the suit fits, wear it.

A crook needs a fence to move the goods and there were two prominent ones in this side of the game: Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman Bros, and Stan O’Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch.  Both companies made a lot of sausage out of sub-prime mortgages.

Thank God that’s all behind us.  Hmmm, we said that after the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s.  Well, thank God that’s all behind us till the mid-2020s, when we will repeat our mistakes.  A retiree should consider that during their retirement an episode of foolishness and downright dishonesty will likely have a serious impact on the value of their portfolio.



Continued strength in employment, with some weaknesses.  Estimate of 2nd quarter GDP growth probably a tad high.  Construction spending still just a bit below the historical per-capita channel of spending.