Oh My Gawd!

November 8, 2015

There is the famous Tarzan yell by Carol Burnett and the iconic “Oh my Gawd” exclamation of Janice Lipman in the long running TV series “Friends.”  That’s what Janice would have said when October’s employment report was released this past Friday.

Highlights:

271,000 jobs gained – maybe. That was almost twice the number of job gains in September (137,000).  Really??!! ADP reported private job gains of 182,000.  Huge difference.  Job gains in government were only 3,000 so let’s use my favorite methodology, average the two and we get 228,000 jobs gained, awfully close to the average of the past twelve months.  Better than average gains in professional business services and construction.  Both of these categories pay well.  Good stuff.

At 34.5 hours, average hours worked per week has declined by 1/10th of an hour in the past year.  The average hourly rate rose 2.5%, faster than headline inflation and giving some hope that workers are finally gaining some pricing power in this recovery.

For some historical perspective, here is a chart of monthly hours worked from 1921 to 1942.  Most of those workers – our parents and grandparents – have passed away.  At the lows of the Great Depression people still worked more hours than we do today.  They were used to hard work.  There were few community resources and social insurance programs to rely on.

The headline unemployment rate fell slightly to 5%.  The widest unemployment rate, or U-6 rate, finally fell below 10% to 9.8%, a rate last seen in May 2008, more than seven years ago.  This rate includes people who are working part time because they can’t find a full time job (involuntary part-timers), and those people who have not actively looked for a job in the past month but do want a job (discouraged job seekers).  Macrotrends has an interactive chart showing the three common unemployment rates on the same chart.

The lack of wage growth during this recovery, coupled with rising home prices, may have made owning a home much less likely for first time buyers.  The historical average of new home buyers is 40%.  The National Assn of Realtors reported that the percentage is now 32%, almost at a 30 year low.

2.5% wage growth looks a bit more promising but the composite LMCI (Labor Market Conditions Index) compiled by the Federal Reserve stood at a perfect neutral reading of 0.0 in September.  The Fed will probably update the LMCI sometime next week.  This index uses more than twenty indicators to give the Fed an in-depth reading of the labor market.

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Bonds and Gold

The strong employment report increased the likelihood that the Fed will raise interest rates at their December meeting and this sent bond prices lower.  A key metric for a bond fund is its duration, which is the ratio of price change in response to a change in interest rates.  Shorter term bond funds have a smaller duration than longer term funds. A short term corporate bond index like Vanguard’s ETF BSV has a duration of 2.7, meaning that the price of the fund will decrease approximately 2.7% in response to a 1% increase in interest rates.  Vanguard’s long term bond ETF BLV has a duration of 14.8, meaning that it will lose about 15% in response to a 1% increase in rates.  In short, BLV is more sensitive than BSV to changes in interest rates. How much more sensitive?  The ratio of the durations – 14.7 / 2.7 = 5.4 meaning that the long term ETF is more than 5 times as sensitive as the short term ETF.

What do we get for this sensitivity, this higher risk exposure?  A higher reward in the form of higher interest rates, or yield.  After a 2.5% drop in the price of long term bond funds this week, BLV pays a yield close to 4% while BSV pays 1.1%.  The reward ratio of 4 / 1.1 = 3.6, less than the risk ratio.   On September 3rd, the reward ratio was much lower, approximately 3.27 / 1.3 = 2.5, or half the risk ratio.

Professional bond fund managers monitor these changing risk-reward ratios on a daily basis.  Retail investors who simply pull the ring for higher interest payments should be aware that not even lollipops at the dentist’s office are free.  Higher interest carries higher risk and duration is that measure of risk.

The prospect of higher interest rates has put gold on a downward trajectory with no parachute since mid-October.  A popular etf  GLD has lost 9% and this week broke below July’s weekly close to reach a yearly low.  Investors in gold last saw this price level in October 2009.  Back then  gold was continuing a multi-year climb that would take its price to nosebleed levels in August 2011, 70% above its current price level.

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CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

Manufacturing is hovering at the neutral 50 mark in the ISM Purchasing Manager’s Index but the rest of the economy is experiencing even greater growth after a two month lull.  No doubt some of this growth is the normal pre-Christmas hiring and stocking of inventories in anticipation of the season.

The CWPI composite of manufacturing and service sector activity has drifted downward but is within a range indicating robust growth.

Employment and New Orders in the non-manufacturing sectors – most of the economy – rose up again to the second best of the recovery.

Economists have struggled to build a mathematical model that portrays and predicts the rather lackluster wage growth of this recovery in a labor market that has been growing pretty strongly for the past few years.

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Social Security

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed and signed into law this past week, curtails or eliminates a Social Security claiming strategy that has become popular.  (Yahoo Finance – can pause the video and read the text below the video).  These were used by married couples who were both at full retirement age.  One partner collected spousal benefits while the “file and suspend” partner allowed their Social Security benefits to grow until the maximum at age 70.  On the right hand side of this blog is a link to a $40 per year “calculator” that helps people maximize their SS benefit.

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Tax Cuts Anyone?

Former Senator, Presidential contender and actor Fred Thompson died this past week.  The WSJ ran a 2007 editorial by Thompson arguing that the “Bush tax cuts” that the Republican Congress passed in 2001 and 2003, when he was a Senator, had spurred the economy, causing tax revenues to increase, not decrease, as opponents of the tax cuts claimed.  Like others in the tax cut camp, Thompson looked at a rather small slice of time to support his claim: 2003 -2007.

Had tax cut advocates looked at an earlier slice of time – also small – in the late 1990s they would have seen the opposite effect.  Higher tax rates in the 1990s caused greater economic growth and higher tax revenues to the government, thereby shrinking the deficit entirely and producing a surplus.

Tax cuts decrease revenues.  Tax increases increase revenues.  That tax cuts or increases as enacted have a material effect on the economy has been debated by leading economists around the world for forty years.  At the extremes – a 100% tax rate or a 0% tax rate – these will certainly have an effect on people’s behavior.  What is not so clear is that relatively small changes in tax rates have a discernible impact on revenues.  A hallmark of belief systems is that believers cling to their conclusions and find data to support those conclusions in the hopes that they can use that to help spread their beliefs to others.

The evidence shows that economic growth usually precedes tax revenue changes; that tax policy advocates in either camp have the cart before the horse.  A downturn in GDP growth is followed shortly by a decline in tax revenues.

Thompson’s editorial notes a favorite theme of tax cut advocates – that the “Kennedy” tax cuts, initiated into law in memory of President Kennedy several months after his assassination in November 1963, spurred the economy and increased tax revenues. Revenues did increase in 1964 but the passage of the tax act occurred during that year so there is little likelihood that the tax cuts had that immediate an effect.  Revenues in 1965 did increase but fell in subsequent years.  A small one year data point is all the support needed for the claims of a believer.

The question we might ask ourselves is why do tax policy and religion share some of the same characteristics?

Crossings

September 6, 2015

I am not going to say a lot about the August employment numbers, reported at 173,000,   since August’s numbers are routinely revised.  The BLS survey was 20,000 less than the ADP survey of private payrolls.  The revised figure will probably be closer to 210,000 jobs gained in August.  We can see the more important trends when we look at the annual job gains averaged over 12 months.

The slowdown in China and other markets and the selloff in markets around the world inevitably prompts talk of recession.  Since WW2 there has been only one recession – the one that followed the 1973 oil embargo –  that occurred when monthly job gains were above 200,000.   There have been 12 recessions since WW2. The work force was very much smaller fifty years ago.  There has been only one exception to this “rule” and when we look at this exception in closer detail we see that it was very much like the prelude to other recessions. Averaged monthly job gains were declining sharply as they do before every recession.  Job gains are NOT declining sharply today.

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Resource Countries On Sale

Monday came the news that the Canadian economy was officially in recession.  California, the most populous of fifty U.S. states, has two million more people than all of Canada, whose economic vitality relies on its vast stores of timber, oil, gas and minerals.  Australia, Russia, Norway and New Zealand also ride the roller coaster of commodity prices. (WSJ article )  An ETF that captures a composite of Canadian stocks, EWC, is down almost 30% from its high of August 2014.  The 50 week (not day, but week) average is about to cross below the 200 week average.

These long term downward crossings are often bullish, indicating that prices are near a low point in the multi-year cycle.  An ETF composite of Australian stocks, EWA, is down a bit more than 30% and its 50 week average just crossed below the 200 week average.

A Vanguard ETF composite of energy stocks is near the lows of 2011.

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Subprime Mortgages

Conventional wisdom: subprime mortgages started the recent financial crisis in 2008.  A recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) analysis (A short summary ) of home foreclosures overturns that misconception.  The authors found that twice as many prime borrowers lost their homes to foreclosure as subprime borrowers.

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Inflation

In 2007, the Social Security Administration estimated that prices would be 20% higher in 2015. Then came the severe recession of 2008-09 and persistently low inflation.  Prices this year are only 15% higher than those in 2007.  Social Security payments will total almost $900 billion this fiscal year (FRED series), more than 20% of Federal spending, and are indexed to inflation.  Low inflation “saves” the Federal government about $40 billion each year when compared with earlier projections.  Sounds good?  Life is a trade-off.  The 60 million (SSA) people who receive social security spend most of it.  That savings of $40 billion is money not spent.  In addition, low interest rates have reduced income for many retirees, who depend on safer investments for an income stream.  These safer accounts, which include savings, CDs, short and mid-term bond funds, have paid historically low interest rates since the Federal Reserve lowered its target interest rate to near-zero (ZIRP) in 2008.

Labor and Purchasing Managers Index

September 7, 2014

Labor Report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported net job gains of 142K in August, much lower than the 200K+ expected.  The private payroll processor ADP reported 204K net private job gains earlier this week.  Some economists predicted that the number will be revised upwards in the next month.  Some point to the difficulties of the seasonal adjustment factor in August.  Below is the monthly net change in jobs with and without seasonal adjustments.

As usual, I average the private net job gains reported by BLS and the payroll processor ADP to come up with net job gains of 169K, add in the 8K job gains in the government sector to get a total of 177K. Another approach to take out the variability is to use the year-over-year change or percent change in employment.  As you can see in the chart below, the monthly seasonal adjustment (in red, overlayed on the blue non-seasonally adjusted figures) attempt to replicate this year over year change on a monthly basis.

As the year-over-year job gains topped the 2 million mark at the start of 2012, the “Golden Cross” – when the 50 day average of the SP500 crosses above the 200 day average – occurred shortly thereafter.  Zooming in on the past year, we can see that the difference between the two series is relatively slight.  In fact, the economy is nearing the levels of late 2005 to 2006 when the labor market was a bit overheated in some regions of the U.S.  The difference between now and then is that workers have relatively weak pricing power.  The average wage has increased just 2.1% in the past year.

A comparison of the monthly growth in jobs, as reported by the BLS, to the Employment index of the ISM Non-Manufacturing Survey shows that the ISM number charts a less erratic path through the variability of the employment data.  The index has been positive and rising since the hard winter dip.

The unemployment rate ticked down slightly in August, but the more significant trend is the decreasing number of involuntary part timers, those who are working part time because they can’t find full time work.

The widest measure of unemployment, which includes both these part time workers and those who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, finally touched the 12% mark this month.

In short, this month’s employment report was good enough but not so good that it would shorten the period before the Federal Reserve begins to hike interest rates.

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Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI)

Each month for the past year, I have been doing a little spreadsheet magic on the Purchasing Managers Index published by ISM to weight the employment and new orders components of this index more heavily.  This has proven to be a reliable and less erratic guide to the economic health of the country.

The manufacturing component of the ISM Purchasing Managers Index was particularly strong in August.  Because the CWPI weights new orders and employment heavily in its composition, the manufacturing component of the CWPI is at levels rarely seen in the past 34 years.  Levels greater than this have occurred only twice before – in November and December 1983 and December 2003.  Both of these previous periods marked the end of a multi-year malaise.

The services sector, which comprises most of the economic activity in the country, is strong and rising as well. New orders declined slightly but are still robust and employment is growing.  The composite of these two components is near robust levels.

This month the CWPI composite of manufacturing and service industries topped the previous high of 66.7 set in December 2003 and is now at an all time high in the 17 years that ISM has been publishing the non-manufacturing index. If the pattern of the past few years continues, this overall composite will probably decline in the next month or two.

Takeaways
Strong economic activity was muted somewhat by a lower than expected monthly labor report.