Retail Sales and the Stock Market

July 20th, 2014

This week I’ll take a look at the latest retail sales numbers and revisit a familiar valuation metric for the stock market.


Retail Sales

Retail sales were a bit of a disappointment this week because of a monthly decline in auto sales.  As strong as vehicle sales have been, we can see a pattern that echoes a trend in employment – the best of this post-recession period is near the low of past recessions.  As a percent of the population, the number of cars and light trucks sold is tepid at best.

In total, retail sales gained more than 4% year-over-year but here again we can see a familiar pattern – declining yearly percentage gains.  Periods of rising gains are about half the length of periods of falling gains.  Over the next several months, we would like to see higher highs in the yearly gains.  Further declines, i.e. lower highs, would be a cause for concern.


Malaysian Airline Disaster

Oil prices had fallen more than 5% over the past three weeks.  The news of an apparent missile strike on a Malaysian passenger jet over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine sent oil prices up about 2.5% over two days this week before falling back slightly on Friday.  As families mourn the deaths of almost 300 people on the plane, a fusillade of accusations and denials were launched.  Some accuse Russia of launching the missile that struck the passenger jet flying at 33,000 foot altitude, some blame Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, others hold Ukranian forces accountable.  Economic sanctions already in place against Russia may be broadened.

Unrest in Ukraine, Iraq and Libya puts upward pressure on oil prices but the effect is moderated by a global supply that is able to meet demand with a safety buffer capable of absorbing these geopolitical conflicts.


Stock Market Valuation

The stock market continues its two year run to try and meet up with the trend channel of the mid-2000s as though the financial crisis never happened.

Last month I wrote about the Shiller CAPE ratio, introduced by economist Robert Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance. Some writers also refer to the CAPE ratio as PE10 or the Shiller P/E ratio.

Portfolio Visualizer (PV) has a free tool that lets viewers backtest portfolios using various strategies. An optional timing model based on the CAPE ratio flips the allocation of a portfolio from 60% stocks and 40% bonds (60/40) to a 40/60 mix when the CAPE is high, as it is today.  In the model, “high” is a CAPE above 22, but as I wrote last month, the CAPE has averaged 22.91 for the past 30 years.  In the relatively low interest environment of the past thirty years, investors are willing to pay more for stocks.  The 50 year average is 19.57, within the normal range of the timing model. One could make the point that “high” should be set upward about 3 points, which is the spread between the 30 and 50 year averages (22.91 – 19.57).  In that case, the trigger high would be 25.

Below is a chart of the CAPE ratio and the inflation adjusted or real price of the SP500 index.  As you can see we are far below the nosebleed valuation levels of the late 90s and early 2000s.

The current CAPE ratio is about 26, above even the modified high point.  Using this model, an investor with a $500,000 portfolio with $300,000 in stocks and $200,000 in bonds, would sell $100,000 of stocks and buy bonds with the proceeds.  Over the past twelve years, the Shiller model would have generated an 8.44% annual return vs the 7.21% return of a 50/50 balanced portfolio.  I included an additional two years to capture half of the downturn in the early 2000s when stocks lost 43% of their value.  More importantly, the risk adjusted return of the Shiller model is much better than the 50/50 portfolio.

The Shiller model also did better than the 8% annual returns of a crossing strategy. This is a variation of the 50 day/200 day “Golden Cross” strategy, which I wrote about in February 2012, a week or so after the occurrence of the last Golden Cross.  In this monthly variation using the Shiller model, an investor exits the market when the SP500 monthly index drops below its 10 month moving average.

Keep in mind that a backtested portfolio generates higher than actual returns since they often don’t include trading fees, slippage or a real life re-balancing.  In backtest simulations, an investor may re-balance all in one day following the signal day.  While that may be the case sometimes, many investors are not so quick and some financial advisers will recommend making a gradual transition when re-balancing.  Still, backtests can be useful in comparing strategies.

An investor who puts money into the stock market today is – or should be – more concerned about what that money will be worth 5, 10 and 20 years from today when they might need the money for retirement, children’s college, or other events in a person’s lifetime.

There is a definite negative correlation between the CAPE and the 10 year return, without dividends, of an investment in the SP500.  Since World War 2, the correlation is -.70.  Since 1902, the correlation is -.65, reflecting the greater portion of earnings that were paid out as dividends to investors before WW2.  In short, it is likely that an investor will experience lower returns the higher this CAPE ratio.


How much can I take each year from the piggy bank?

There is also a Shiller model for sustainable withdrawals from a portfolio based on the CAPE ratio.  You can read about it here.  Keep in mind that this model uses a 30 year horizon for retirement.  The same author, Wade Pfau, has a separate article on the various time horizons used in withdrawal models.



Two steps forward, one step back is a familiar trend in this post-recession period.  Retail sales are healthy but below the 5% threshold of a strong upward trend.

Using the Shiller CAPE ratio as a metric of market valuation, stocks are overvalued.

Retail Sales, Autos, Sell in May

May 18, 2014

This week I’ll look at sentiment among small business owners, retail and auto sales, and revisit the “Sell in May” idea.

Small Business

Cue the trumpets, clouds part, sun rays stream down upon the green fields.  After almost seven years, sentiment among small business owners broke through the 95 level according to the monthly survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB).  Despite the many positives in this latest survey, hiring plans remain muted.  This unfortunately confirms several other reports – the monthly employment report, JOLTS, disposable income, to mention a few – that indicate a befuddling lack of robust employment gains during this recovery.


Retail Sales

The monthly reports on employment and retail sales probably have the most impact on short term investor sentiment.  Retail sales were flat in April but have rebounded well after the particularly harsh winter.  With a longer term perspective, year over year retail gains are not robust but are still in the healthy zone of 2-1/2%.

Per capita inflation adjusted retail and food service sales are strong.  Rising home prices in the early 2000s drove an upsurge in retail sales, followed by an offsetting plunge as home prices dropped and the financial crisis of 2008 hit consumers hard.  The landslide of employment losses undercut retail sales.

Motor Vehicles sales are particularly strong and are now back to the pre-recession trend line.

However, that recession dip represents millions of vehicles not sold and contributes mightily to the record average age of more than 11 years for vehicles in the U.S. (AutoNews)  As the article noted, better engineering has lengthened the serviceable life of many autos.  There are 247 million registered passenger vehicles and light trucks, more than one for each of the 240 million people in this country over the age of 18 (Census Bureau) According to the industry research firm Motor Intelligence (spreadsheet), April’s year to date passenger car sales have declined 1.8% while sales of light pickups have surged 8.3%.  The particularly harsh winter months probably reduced traffic at car dealerships around the country, but the year-over-year comparison in April was only a 3.6% gain.  The lack of a spring bounce indicates that household income gains are meager.  The rise in sales of light pickups is largely due to a 10% increase in construction spending in the past year.

On an annualized basis, auto sales are approaching 16 million, a level last seen in November 2007 and far above the 10 million vehicle sales in 2009.

The numbers look rather strong but annual sales per capita are at the recession levels of the early 1990s.   Clearly, something has changed.

Better engineering has increased serviceable vehicle life.  Demographic changes may be having an effect. The population is aging and older people who drive less may decide to hang on to their vehicles longer.  A population shift toward urban centers reduces demand for autos.  There is a greater availability of public transportation.  In some areas of the country, an electric scooter or bicycle meets many transportation needs.
Long term shifts in an industry prompt employers to look for opportunities to adjust some part of their strategy or cost structure to meet those changes.  Three weeks ago, Toyota announced that they will move their headquarters from Torrance, CA, in the South Bay area of metro L.A., to Plano, TX.  As the largest employer in Torrance, the city’s economy will surely take a hit. (Daily Breeze)  Toyota joins a list of large employers leaving or reducing their presence in California (article)


Sell in May

The market has flatlined since early March.  Most of the companies in the S&P500 have reported earnings for the first quarter.  68% beat expectations but this has become a highly sophisticated game of managing expectations.  What is notable is that sales growth has slowed.  As I noted a few weeks earlier, labor productivity is poor.  Companies have done a remarkable job of cutting costs to boost profits but it is unclear how much more they can cut.  Last year’s 30% rise in the market has spurred the rise of mergers, or growing profits through economies of scale.

If the market were to decline 10 – 20% from here, some would point to the chart of the S&P500 and say they saw it all along.  “Classic case of a market top,” they would intone.  “Several failed attempts to break through resistance at the 1900 level indicated a major market correction.”  Oh, and they have a newsletter that you can subscribe to.

If the market goes up 10%, a different set of people will proclaim that they saw it all along.  “The market was forming a baseline of support,” they will sagely pronounce.  Each of these people also have a newsletter.

“Sell in May and go away” is an old quip of short term trading.  In 2011, I explored (here and here) the truths and myths behind this old saw. On a long term basis, one earns better returns by disciplined monthly, or quarterly, investing. Still, in a slight majority of the almost 20 years I reviewed, the Sell in May approach had some validity. Let’s look back at the last five years.  Typically an investor would sell the S&P500 and go into long Term Treasuries (TLT).  A more cautious investor might pick a less volatile intermediate bond fund.

In 2013, the SP500 went nowhere from May 1st to September 1st.  Great call by our intrepid investor who took some of her money out of the market and invested in Long Term Treasuries (TLT) in early May.  By early September, however, her investment would have depreciated 13%. Ooops!  Better to have stayed in stocks.

Likewise, in 2012, stocks went nowhere from early May to early September.  Unlike 2013, an investor buying long term Treasuries during that period had a 7% gain BUT if she had waited a week to sell in September, there was no gain.  The gains were a matter of luck.

2011 was the bing-bang year for the Sell in May crowd.  The stock market lost about 12% during the summer while long Treasuries gained 20%.

In 2010, stocks fell 7% during the summer while long Treasuries gained 10%.  During the summer of stocks gained almost 12% while Treasuries changed little.  In short, the strategy worked three summers out of the past five.

Now for a more fundamental approach – investing in companies that are more stable.  Horan Capital Advisors referred to a report from S&P Capital IQ that found that companies in the S&P500 with a low beta offset or reduced any summer market volatility.  Beta is a measure of a stock’s price volatility.  A value of 1 is the volatility of the entire index.  Betas less than 1 mean that a company’s stock price is less volatile than the index.  As volatility of the total market increases, investors tend to seek companies with a more reliable outlook and performance.  The screening criteria produced a mix of companies dominated by those in the consumer discretionary and health care sectors.  Worth a look for investors who buy individual stocks.

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.


September 16th, 2013

September marks two anniversaries that we wish had not happened.  One of those is the financial crisis and the meltdown of the economy in September 2008.  In the fourth quarter of 2008, GDP fell about $250 billion.  By itself, this was not a disaster.  However, it came on the heels of a decline in the 2nd quarter and flat growth in the 1st quarter.

Almost overnight, consumers cut back on their spending.  Retail sales dropped $40 billion, a bit more than 10%.

There was little drop in food sales – people gotta eat.  All of the drop was in retail sales excluding food.

Retail sales are less than 3% of GDP.  Contributing to the GDP decline was the 33% fall in auto sales, about $20 billion.

Offsetting the decline in retail sales, however, total Government spending increased $40 billion in the 4th quarter.

Disposable Personal Income (income after taxes) fell $100 billion, about 1%, but was still on a healthy upward trajectory during the year preceding the crisis.

We routinely import more goods and services than we export.  In the national accounts of domestic production, imports are naturally treated as a negative number, while exports are positive. The difference, called net exports, is negative and reduces GDP.  For all of 2008, we had about the same net exports as 2007.

Gross Private Domestic Investment declined $200 billion or 9% over the year.  This includes investments in buildings, equipment and housing.  Housing accounted for $150 billion of the change.

The TV news media, a visual medium, focuses on crises because it is not well suited for more thoughtful analysis.  On camera interviews in a crisis do not have to be very detailed or accurate.  Viewers understand that it is a crisis.  But viewers are also an impatient bunch with trigger fingers on their remote controls. Video footage has to be loaded, sequenced and edited.  On air interviews and several short video clips run repeatedly during a news hour will have to do.  The recent flooding in Colorado is a reminder that there is only so much video footage available.  TV stations simply reran the same sequences over and over.  On the 9 PM local news, the station featured an on site reporter in front of a driveway heaped full with damaged belongings and furniture.  At 10 PM, a different local station featured their reporter in front of the same house.

In September 2008, the media focused on the financial crisis and the implosion of stock prices.  When the stock market opens up on a September morning 300 points down, what else is there to cover?  It is important to understand that the economy is a big organism with a lot of moving parts.  The housing decline was already two years old before the financial crisis hit in September 2008.

Fast forward to this September.  A day ahead of the ISM Manufacturing report on September 4th came the news that China’s manufacturing sector has strengthened, a positive note in the Asian region where capital outflows from emerging nations have weakened the economies of other nations.  The prospect of higher interest rates in the U.S. has sparked a change in money flows to the U.S., strengthening the dollar against the currencies of emerging countries.  This change in flows promises to put pressure on companies in developed nations who had earlier borrowed money in U.S. dollars to take advantage of low interest rates.  The stream of capital follows the deepest channel.  The combination of risk and reward in each country can largely determine the depth of the channel.  Countries can, by central bank policy or law, control the flows of foreign investment into and out of their country.  China and India exercise some degree of control in an attempt to maintain some stability in their economies.  Like other developed nations, the U.S. has few controls.  In the run up of the housing bubble, foreign flows into the U.S. provided the impetus for investment banks like Goldman Sachs to initiate and bundle many thousands of mortgages into tradable financial products that met the demand by foreign investors.

Manufacturing data in the Eurozone was a big positive with several countries recording their strongest growth in over two years.  The Purchasing Managers Indexes (PMI) are not strong but are showing some expansion, a turn about from the slight contraction or neutral growth of the past two years.   The fragile economic growth of the Eurozone has been exacerbated by the concentration of growth in France and Germany, particularly Germany.  Recent strong gains in some of the peripheral countries, those in the former Communist bloc and southern Europe, suggest that economic activity is becoming more dispersed.  Dramatic differences in the economies of countries that share the same currency make the setting of monetary policy difficult and it is hoped that more even growth will take pressure off central banks in the Eurozone.

At an overall reading of 55.7, the ISM Manufacturing report released a week ago Tuesday showed even stronger growth than the previous month’s index of 55.4.  50 is the neutral mark that indicates neither expansion or contraction of manufacturing activity.  New orders began a worrisome decline in  the latter part of 2012 that persisted into the spring of this year, and the turnaround of the past few months forecasts a healthy manufacturing sector for the next several months.  Levels above 60 in any of the components of this index indicate robust growth;  both new orders and production are above that mark.

A few days later ISM reported their Non-Manufacturing composite was 58.6, indicating strong expansion in service industries which make up the bulk of the economy.  The Business Activity index came in at a robust 62.2.  ISM also reported that their figures for June had an incorrect seasonal adjustment.  The New Orders Index for June was revised up a significant 2%.  Prices were revised up 4.3%.  Other changes were relatively insignificant.

The constant weighted index I have been tracking smooths the ISM data so that it responds less strongly to one month’s data but it is showing strong upward movement in both manufacturing and non-manufacturing.

The Commerce Dept reported last Friday that Retail Sales continue to grow at a modest pace.  However, let’s look at retail sales as a percent of disposable income.  Consumers are still cautious.

Speaking of disposable income.  As we import more and export less, disposable income as a percent of GDP continues to rise.  This percentage rises sharply at the onset of recessions.  It is a bit troublesome that the 40 year trend is rising.

The Price is Right?

August 4th, 2013

First week of the month and several good monthly reports helped propel the SP500 through the 1700 mark this week, making an all time high.  Last week I wrote that the market would be cautious and the first few trading days of the week was exactly that, drifting sideways.  On Thursday the release of a suprisingly strong ISM Manufacturing report gave an upward jolt to the market.  In several recent blogs on the ISM and an alternative composite called the CWI, we could see that manufacturing has been sliding toward the neutral mark of 50 for the past several months.  On Monday, the ISM non-manufacturing index will be released and next week I hope to update the CWI.

Ultimately, the market rides up or down on the anticipation of future earnings.  However, earnings can be “managed,” to put it politely.  Further confusing the earnings picture for a casual investor are the several different types of earnings: operating, pro-forma and GAAP to mention a few.  There are two types of “future”, or projected, earnings: bottom up and top down.

A simpler approach that some investors use is to calculate the Price Dividend ratio.  There is no fudging of cash dividends to investors.  Robert Shiller, author of  the 2005 book “Irrational Exuberance”, updates the data used in his book.   These include the SP500 index, earnings, dividends, the CPI and a Price Earnings ratio that is based on the past ten years of earnings.  The current ratio of 23.80 is lower than the 2006 ratios which were in the high twenties.

But let’s look at the Price Dividend, or PD, ratio.  For the past ten years that ratio has averaged a bit less than 52, meaning that investors have been willing to pay almost 52 times the amount of the dividend to own the stock.  As of June 30th, the PD ratio stood at a bit more than 48, which means that stocks were a bit cheaper than average at this date.  Since then the market has gone up about 6% so that the PD ratio is now about 51, or just about average.

As the market makes new highs, investors are prone to ask themselves if the price they are paying for stocks is too high.  The long term investor might take a different perspective and ask themselves, “How will I feel in ten years if I continued to put money into the stock market now?”  Ten years from now, in the year 2023, the answer will be “Well, I didn’t get a deal and I didn’t overpay based on the information available at the time.  I paid about average.”

McGraw-Hill, the publisher of the SP500 market index, also keeps an index of dividends.

Dividend growth has plateaued and is about a third of earnings, which means that companies are paying a third of their earnings back to investors in the form of dividends.  This is just slightly more than the median for the past ten years.

There was a lot of data to digest in this past week.  The GDP estimates for the 2nd quarter was a sluggish 1.7%, more than the expectation of 1.1%.  But – always that but – the 1st quarter GDP growth was revised down from 1.7% to 1.1%.

On Thursday, the same day as the ISM manufacturing report, came the monthly report on auto sales.  Total sales of light weight vehicles, which includes cars and pickups, increased about 4% this past month to an annualized amount of 16 million vehicles.

When we look at auto sales on a per capita basis, auto sales are still below 5% of the population, a level that would show me that consumer demand and the construction industry (pickup trucks) is healthy.  As we can see from the chart below, the sale of autos stayed consistently above that 5% level for more than 20 years – until the last recession began.

Employment in the production of motor vehicles and related parts is very  weak.

Although vehicle sales includes both imports and domestics, I wanted to see how many autos are sold per person employed in automotive production.  Advances in manufacturing and the mix of import and domestically made vehicles have impacted employment.

And with that, I’ll look briefly at the Employment Report for July released this past Friday.  On Wednesday, ADP reported 200,000 private jobs gained, giving a brief upward impetus to the market.  As I noted last week, caution would be the watchword of this week and that caution showed in later trading on Wednesday.  The ADP report did give some hope that the BLS employment report would show an approximate gain of that many jobs.  Instead, the employment gains from the BLS were disappointing, at 162,000.   A further disappointment were the small downward revisons in May and June’s employment gains, totalling -26,000.

The unemployment rate declined, from 7.6% to 7.4%, but for the wrong reasons.  For any number of reasons – disappointment, frustration, going back to school, retirement – 240,000 people dropped out of the work force.  This is close to the reduction of 257,000 in the ranks of the unemployed.  After declines or relative stability in the number of “drop outs” in recent months, this month’s surge was particularly disappointing.

Job gains in the core work force aged 25 -54 remains relatively flat.

While older workers continue to add jobs

Business Services and Health Care jobs continued their strong job gains but gains in the health care field have slowed from 27,000 per month in 2012 to only 16,000 in 2013.  Sit down for this one – government workers, mostly at the local level, actually gained 1,000 in July.

Despite the decline in unemployment, the tepid employment and GDP growth reports likely reassured many that the Fed is unlikely to stop or reduce their quantitative easing program in the next few months.

Auto Sales

Auto sales have been one of the strong parts of the economic recovery in the past couple of years, as shown in the graph below.

The industry had been beaten down during the recession as consumers got by with whatever they were driving.  Looking back over the last thirty years, we can see that we are still below a healthier annual average of about 14 million cars and trucks sold, and far from the peak levels of 17 million.

But something more fundamental has changed.  We are simply buying fewer new cars per capita.  Below is a graph of the number of new cars sold divided by the population.

We are making our cars last longer.  The quality and safety of cars has certainly improved but we are simply spending less money per capita on automotive transport.  Below is a graph of per capita spending on new autos and auto parts.  In 2012, we are spending about the same amount of money as in 1998, despite 14 years of inflation.  In real inflation adjusted dollars, we are spending a little less than what we did in 1992.

What these figures do not include is a comparison of the cost of repairs, car insurance and, chief of all, the cost of gas to feed our four wheeled beasts of burden.

Below is a chart of the weekly average price of gasoline in the U.S. since 1990.

If a gallon of gas cost $1 in the early nineties and the price of gas went up with the rate of inflation, we would expect to pay about $2.30 today.  Instead we are paying closer to $4 a gallon.  Indexed to inflation, the cost of gas reached its peak under the Bush administration but gas prices are approaching that 2008 peak.

I have already heard several political ads saying that when Obama came into office, gas was $2.50 a gallon and now the price of gas if $4.00 a gallon.  Sure, gas was $2.50 a gallon when Bush left office.  Oil prices had plummeted in reaction to the global financial crisis.  Political ads trust that our memories are short and that we have forgotten just how high gasoline prices had climbed during the Bush administration.  Since the average of gasoline prices are relatively lower during the Obama administration than the 2nd Bush term, should we then conclude that Bush’s energy policies were bad and Obama’s are good?  The fact is that presidential policies have a teeny tiny effect on the price of gasoline.  Political ads and the money machines behind them are like the shell game operators on Times Square in New York City.  They hope we are gullible enough to believe their illusions.

Savings Crisis

Last week the Commerce Dept reported that consumer credit had grown in November at an annualized rate of 10%. 

The growth consisted mostly of car and truck sales, which shows increasing confidence and pent up demand.

Below is a chart of revolving credit outstanding which excludes auto sales.  As we can see, the American consumer is still struggling.

Taking a longer perspective, let’s look at the personal savings rate for the past 50 years.  The savings rate is calculated by subtracting all personal consumption expenses, including interest, from disposable personal income (gross income less taxes).

The savings rate shows the underlying resilience – or lack of it – of the average American household.  Savings helps fuel investment in companies, investment in local, state and federal government bonds.  As our savings fall, we become ever more reliant on foreign money to fuel this country’s debt and growth.