Caution: Under Construction

June 12, 2016

As we travel the highways this summer we are likely to encounter many construction zones as crews repair wear and tear, and the damage that results from the temperature cycle of freeze and thaw. There are a few hitches on the economic road as well.

CWPI

I look to the Purchasing Manager’s (PM) Survey each month for some advance clues about the direction of the economy.  Like the employment report, this month’s survey contains some troubling signs.  I had my doubts about the low numbers in the employment report until I saw the results from this survey.  PMs in the services sectors reported a 3.3% contraction in employment growth so that it is now neutral, matching the lack of growth in manufacturing employment.

New orders in both manufacturing and services are still growing but slowed considerably in the services sectors.  The slowdown in both employment and new orders in the services sectors is apparent from the graph below.  While this composite is still growing (above 50), it has been below the five year average for four out of five months.

This recovery has been marked by, and hampered by, a familiar peak and trough pattern of growth. Last month I wrote:

 “A break in this pattern would indicate some concern about a recession in the following six months. What is a break in the pattern? An extended trough or a continued decline toward the contraction zone below 50.”

The CWPI, a custom blend of the various parts of the ISM surveys, shows a continued weakening that is more than just the periodic trough.  If there are further indications of weakness this summer, get concerned.

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LMCI

A few years ago the Federal Reserve introduced the Labor Market Conditions Index, or LMCI, a composite analysis of the labor market based on about twenty indicators published each month by several agencies. Because the report is released a week after the headline employment report, this composite does not receive much attention from policy makers, which is a bit of puzzle.  Janet Yellen, chair of the Fed, has indicated that she and others on the rate setting committee of the Fed, the FOMC, rely on this index when determining interest rate policy.

One business day after the release of this month’s unexpectedly weak employment report, the LMCI showed an almost 5% decrease and is the 5th consecutive monthly decrease in the index.

Although this composite is fairly new, many of the underlying indicators have long histories and enable the Fed to provide several decades of this index.  As a recession indicator, the monthly changes in this index tend to produce a number of false positives.  However, if we shift the graph upwards by adding 7 points to the changes, we see a familiar 0 line boundary.  When the monthly change in the index drops below 0 on this adjusted basis (actually -7), a recession has followed shortly.

We are not at the zero boundary yet, but we are getting close and the pattern looks ominously familiar.  Don’t play the Jaws music yet, though.

Income Distributions

February 7th, 2016

Updates on January’s employment report and CWPI are at the end of this post.  Get out your snowboards ’cause we’re going to carve the political half-pipe! (*v*)
(X-Game enthusiasts can click here)

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To Be Rich or Not To Be Rich

Every year the IRS takes a statistical snapshot of the almost 150,000,000 (150M) personal tax returns it receives.  There are some interesting tidbits contained in these tables that will put the lie to many a politician’s claim in this election season.  The IRS lists the number of returns for each of some twenty income brackets.  They also list the exemptions claimed for each of these income brackets and let’s turn to that for some interesting insights.

From Table 1.4 we learn that there were 290M exemptions claimed in the 147M tax returns filed in 2013, or almost two exemptions per return.  In 1995 (Table 1, same link as above) the number of exemptions claimed was 237M for 118M returns, exactly two exemptions per return. Exemptions are people that need to be fed, clothed, and housed.

Census Bureau surveys (CPS) over the past few decades show that households are shrinking.  Conservatives assert that median household income has stagnated simply because there are fewer people and workers in households today compared to the past.  If this were true, IRS data would show a greater decrease in exemptions over an 18 year period. We can’t say that one or the other data source is “true,” but that averaging data from the two sources probably gives a more accurate composite of income trends in the data.  Census data probably overcounts households while the IRS undercounts them.  Conservatives who advocate less government support will ignore IRS data that conflicts with their beliefs.

30% of the exemptions were claimed by tax returns with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) of less than $25,000, or less than half the median household income. (AGI is earned income and does not include much of the income received from government social programs.)  Only 2M exemptions, or 2/3 of 1%, were claimed by tax returns with an AGI of $1M or more.  Out of 315 million people in the U.S., there are only two million “fat cats” with incomes above $1,000,000.

Presidential contender Bernie Sanders tells his supporters that he is going to tax the rich to help pay for his programs.  IRS data shows just how few there are to tax to generate money for ambitious social programs. Mr. Sanders says he will get money from the big corporations.  Corporations with lots of well paid lawyers are not going to give up their money peacefully.

Instead, Mr. Sanders’ plans will rely on taxing individuals who can not erect the legal or accounting barricades employed by big corporations.  11% of exemptions were claimed by those making more than $200,000, a larger pool of potential tax money. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals will “Feel the Bern.”  It is not unusual for a middle class married couple in a high cost of living city like New York or Los Angeles to make $200K.  Mr. Sanders has his sights on you.  You are now reclassified as rich.

Here is a well-sourced analysis of the net cost to families.  Most will save money.  Unfortunately, Mr. Sanders made the political mistake of admitting that he would raise taxes, but…  No one paid attention to the “but.”  Should he win the Democratic nomination, Mr. Sanders will “feel the Bern” as Republicans use the phrase against him.  He might have used a phrase like “my plan will lower mandatory payments” to describe the combined effect of higher income taxes and no healthcare insurance payments.

The author calculates that the top 4% will spend a net $21K in extra taxes less savings on health care premiums.  The author probably overstates the effect on those at the top because he uses an average instead of a median, but we could conservatively estimate an additional $10K for those with AGIs in the $200K-$300K range.

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Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is  a reverse income tax for low income workers, who get a check from the federal goverment.  For the 2014 tax year, over 27 million returns received about $67 billion from the government for an average of $2400 per receipient (IRS).  In inflation adjusted dollars, this is up 50% from the 2000 average of $1600.  The number of receipients has expanded 50% as well, growing from 18 million to 27 million.  Although Democrats often tout their support for the poor, it is Republican congresses that are largely responsible for expanding this support for low income families.  Republicans may talk tough but are more than willing to reach out a helping hand to those who are giving it their best effort.  There is a practical political consideration as well.  An analysis of IRS data by the Brookings Institute found that, in the past fourteen years, the poor have shifted from urban areas largely controlled by Democrats to the outlying suburbs of metropolitan areas, where Republicans have more support. In short, Republicans are taking care of their voter base.

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Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI)

The manufacturing sector, about 15% of the economy, continues to contract slightly, according to the latest Purchasing Manager’s Survey from ISM.  The strong dollar and a slowdown in China have dragged exports down.   Extremely low oil prices have impacted the pricing component of the manufacturing survey, which has reached levels normally seen during a recession.

 

For some industries, like chemical products, the low oil prices have boosted their profit margins.  Most industries are reporting strong growth or at least staying busy.  Wood, food, beverage and tobacco manufacturers and producers report a sluggish start to the year, as reported to ISM.

The services sectors have weakened somewhat in the latest survey of Purchasing Managers, but are still growing, with a PMI index reading of 53.5.  Above 50 is growing; below 50 is contracting.  The weighted composite of the entire economy, the CWPI, is still growing strongly but the familiar up and down cycle of the recovery is changing.  Both exports and imports are contracting

The composite of employment and new orders in the non-manufacturing sectors has broken  below the 5 year trend.  It may turn back up again as it did in the winter of 2014, but it bears watching.

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Employment

Each month theBureau of Labor Statistics  (BLS) surveys thousands of businesses and government agencies to compute the number of private and public jobs gained or lost during the month.  The payroll processing firm ADP also tallies a change in private jobs based on paychecks generated from thousands of its client businesses.  If we subtract government jobs from the BLS total, we should get a total number of jobs that is close to what ADP tallies.  As we see in the graph below, that is the case.

Economists, policy makers and the media look at the monthly change in that total number of jobs.  This change is miniscule compared to the 121 million private jobs in the U.S.  A historical chart of that monthly change shows that BLS survey numbers are more volatile than ADP.

I find an averaging method reduces the monthly volatility.  I take the change in jobs as reported by the BLS, subtract the  change in government employment, average that result with the ADP report of jobs gained or lost, then add back in the BLS estimate of the change in government employment.  This method produces a resulting monthly change that proves more accurate in time, after the data is subsequently revised by the BLS.  Based on that methodology, jobs gains were close to 175K in January, not the 151K reported by the BLS or the 205K reported by ADP.

There was a lot to like in January’s survey.  The unemployment rate fell below 5%.  Average hourly earnings increased by 1/2%.  Manufacturing jobs added 29,000 jobs, the most since the summer of 2013.  This helped offset the far below average job gains in professional and business services.  Year-over-year growth in the core work force aged 25-54 increased further above 1%.

The bad, or not so good, news: job gains in the retail trade sector accounted for 1/3 of total job gains and were more than twice the past year’s average of retail jobs gained.  Considering that job growth in retail was near zero in December, this may turn out to be a survey glootch.  Food services were another big gainer this past month.  Neither of these sectors pays particularly well.  The jump in manufacturing jobs probably contributed the most to lift the average hourly wage.

The Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) is a cluster of twenty or so employment indicators compiled by the Federal Reserve.  December’s change in the monthly index was almost 3%.  In the forty year history of this index, there has NEVER been a recession when this index was positive.

We are innately poor at judging risk.  We derive indicators and other statistical tools to help us balance that innate human weakness with the strength of mathematical logic.  Still, people do not make money by NOT talking about recession.  NOT talking does not pay commissions, does not generate the buying of put options, expensive annuities, and other financial products designed to make money on the natural gut fears of investors.  Next week I’ll look at the price stability of our portfolios.

Holding Pattern

September 20, 2015

The big news this week was the decision by the Fed to not raise interest rates this month.  Big mistake.  The Fed’s decision signaled a lack of confidence in the global economy.  Are we to believe that the continuing strength of the American economy is so weak that it can not weather even a 1/4% interest rate increase?

Message received.  When the news was announced on Thursday, the initial reaction was good.  Yaay!  no rate increase.  Then, the reality sunk in.  Does the Fed know something that the rest of us don’t? The buyers went to the back of the bus.  The sellers started driving the bus.  Pessimism wiped out the gains in the early part of the week and ended the week down 7/10%.  When in doubt, traders get out.

There are many aspects of the labor market.  The Fed crafts a composite of over 20 factors, called the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI).  The latest reading was released on September 9th, a week before this month’s Fed meeting.  This may have contributed to the caution in the Fed’s decision making.  The overall labor market has still not fully recovered from the downturn this past spring.

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Automation

Will your job become automated?  In this fast morphing economy, the demand for a particular skill set can change quickly.  Younger people, whether working or still in school, need to focus on developing transferable skills.   Here’s a list of the nine criteria that some researchers determined were important to keeping a job from being automated: “social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others, originality, fine arts, finger dexterity, manual dexterity and the need to work in a cramped work space.”

When the first Boomers were born at the end of World War II, 16% of the workforce was employed in agriculture.  Millions of agricultural jobs have been lost in the past 70 years. Now it is less than 2%. (USDA source)

Computerization has led to the loss of millions of clerical and accounting jobs in the back offices of businesses throughout this country. Despite those job losses of the past 25 years, there are almost twice as many professional and business employees now as there were in 1990 (Source )

In contrast, construction employment is about the same as it was 20 years ago – an example of an industry that boomed and busted in the past two decades.  Despite that lack of growth, construction employment is still almost twice what it was in the go-go years of the 1960s. (Source)

Despite all these job losses due to automation and more efficient production methods, there are 350% more people working now (140 million) than there were at the end of WW2 (40 million). (Source)

Those who get left behind are those who have a narrow set of skills.

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Labor Market Analysis

Each August the Federal Reserve hosts an economic summit for central bankers, economists and academics.  In 2014, Fed chair woman Janet Yellen commented on several aspects of the labor market:

Labor force participation peaked in early 2000, so its decline began well before the Great Recession. A portion of that decline clearly relates to the aging of the baby boom generation. But the pace of decline accelerated with the recession. As an accounting matter, the drop in the participation rate since 2008 can be attributed to increases in four factors: retirement, disability, school enrollment, and other reasons, including worker discouragement.

As Yellen noted, some changes were structural, some cyclical:
Over the past several years, wage inflation, as measured by several different indexes, has averaged about 2 percent, and there has been little evidence of any broad-based acceleration in either wages or compensation. Indeed, in real terms, wages have been about flat, growing less than labor productivity.

Ms. Yellen agrees that the headline unemployment rate, the U-3 rate, does not reflect current labor market conditions:  “the recent behavior of both nominal and real wages point to weaker labor market conditions than would be indicated by the current unemployment rate.

Since unemployment peaked at 25% during the Great Depression in the 1930s there has been an ongoing debate about unemployment during recessions.  Why don’t employees simply offer to work for less when the economy starts slowing down? Yellen offered some insights [my comments in brackets below]:

the sluggish pace of nominal [current dollars] and real [inflation-adjusted] wage growth in recent years may reflect the phenomenon of ‘pent-up wage deflation.’ The evidence suggests that many firms faced significant constraints in lowering compensation during the recession and the earlier part of the recovery because of ‘downward nominal wage rigidity’–namely, an inability or unwillingness on the part of firms to cut nominal wages. To the extent that firms faced limits in reducing real and nominal wages when the labor market was exceptionally weak, they may find that now they do not need to raise wages to attract qualified workers. As a result, wages might rise relatively slowly as the labor market strengthens. If pent-up wage deflation is holding down wage growth, the current very moderate wage growth could be a misleading signal of the degree of remaining slack. Further, wages could begin to rise at a noticeably more rapid pace once pent-up wage deflation has been absorbed.”

Avoidable Taxes

April 19, 2015

Taxes

Some call them loopholes, tax breaks, or giveaways but the official name for them are tax expenditures.  In August of last year, the Joint (House and Senate) Committee on Taxation detailed  the many gimmes in the tax code.  The Pew Research Center graphed out the largest expenditures including the big banana, tax free employer paid health insurance premiums. (They forgot to include the $38 billion in Sec. 125 cafeteria plans.) That program started during World War 2 when wage increases were frozen by law.  That war ended 70 years ago but the “temporary” tax break goes on and on.

The list of giveaways runs for 12 pages. Those with incomes above $100,000 get 80% of the mortgage interest deduction (page 37), 90% of real estate tax write-offs (page 38),  60% of the child care credits (page 39), and claim 86% of the charitable contributions (page 38).  Reduced rates on dividends and capital gains cost almost $100 billion in 2014.

28 million low income families qualify for the earned income tax credit but the $68 billion cost for that is less than half the cost of tax free health insurance premiums.  Almost 37 million families claim a child tax credit for $57 billion dollars (page 41).

Seniors get $60 billion of gimmes in tax free Medicare benefits (page 32).  In 2015, tax breaks for all types of medical spending will total almost 1/4 trillion dollars in foregone tax revenue.   As spring arrives, let’s lobby for tax deductions for gardening expenses.  Gardening is therapeutic, a genuine medical expense.

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CWPI

As expected, the composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) in the manufacturing and service sectors declined further but remains strong. We may see a slight decline for one more month before the cycle upwards starts again.

New orders and employment in the service sectors is strong and growing, offsetting some weakness in the manufacturing sector.

March’s retail sales gain of almost 1% was a bit heartening after the winter slump.  Excluding auto sales, year over year gains have dropped sharply since November and the trend continued in March as the yearly gain was only 1/4%.

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Labor Market Conditions Index

The Federal Reserve takes about a week after the release of the monthly labor report to compile their Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI), a comprehensive snapshot of the many facets of the labor market.  For the first time in three years, the index turned negative in March.  It barely crossed below 0 but is sure to give some pause, a watch and wait when the FOMC meets at the end of this month.  While some of the FOMC members have been making a more aggressive case for raising interest rates, chair Janet Yellen is sure to point out that the economy is below target in both employment and inflation.

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Mortgage Banking

In an April 8th article, the Wall St. Journal reported that loans backed by bank deposits fell from 44% in 1980 to 20% in 2008.  Since 2012, the big banks have fled the mortgage business and now account for only a third of new federally guaranteed mortgages.  Small finance companies, which avoid much of the oversight and regulation in Dodd-Frank, now account for more than half of new mortgages.

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Winter Wanders

March 8, 2015

Labor Market

If you are reading this and have not set your clock forward, that’s OK.  March to your own drummer!

On Wednesday, payroll processor ADP released their data for February, showing private payroll gains of 212,000.  This confirmed estimates that total job gains from the BLS would be about 230,000.  The bothersome data point in the ADP report was the huge upward revision of job gains in January, bringing it close to the BLS estimate.  ADP is working with a lot of hard data – actual paychecks – so was this revision a discrepancy in seasonal adjustments?

On Thursday, the BLS issued revised figures for labor productivity in the 4th quarter of 2014. The report includes this: “The 4.9 percent increase in hours worked remains the largest increase in this series since a gain of 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 1998.” 4th quarter productivity sagged 2.2% from the 3rd quarter,  and was essentially unchanged from the 4th quarter of 2013.  Labor productivity is often a lagging indicator but it narrowed Thursday’s trading range as investors crossed bets on the Fed’s plans for raising interest rates later in the year.

The BLS report of 295,000 job gains in Febuary was so over the top that many traders punched the sell button.  Government employment increased 7,000, meaning that private job gains as reported by the BLS was almost 290,000, a difference of almost 70,000 between the BLS and ADP reports.  When in doubt, traders get out.

For mid to long-term investors, the continuing strength in the labor market is an optimistic sign.  Employees add to costs and commitments.  If businesses are adding jobs, it is because they anticipate higher revenues in the near future.  Some analysts pointed to the high number of jobs gained in the leisure and hospitality sectors as a sign of weakness in the labor market.  These are jobs that pay on average about 25% less than the average of all production and non-supervisory employees and a third less than the average for all employees.  However, higher paying jobs in professional services and construction also showed strong gains.

As I have mentioned before, the Federal Reserve compiles a Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) which summarizes 24 employment trends and one which chair Janet Yellen uses as her gauge for the fundamental strength or weakness of the labor market.  Next Wednesday, the Fed will release the LMCI updated for February but a chart of the past twenty years shows longer term trends.

While the index itself is still in negative territory, the momentum (red line) of the index is strong and consistent.  We can understand Yellen’s cautious optimism when recently testifying before the Senate Banking Committee.  This index was only developed a few years ago so this chart includes revised data and methodology that is backward looking.  If history is any guide, a long term investor would be ill advised to bet against the momentum of this index when it is positive.

A key indicator for Ms. Yellen is the Quit rate, the number of employees who quit their jobs to go to another job or who feel confident that they can find another job without much difficulty.  That confidence measure continues to rise and is currently in a sweet spot.  It is not overly confident as it was at the height of the housing boom in 2006 and the dot com boom of the late 1990s.  It is neither pessimistic as it was in the early 2000s or darkly apocalyptic as in the period from 2008 – 2012.

The number of new claims for unemployment as a percentage of the Civilian Labor Force is at historic lows.  One could argue that new claims are too low.

Wage growth in this month’s report was minimal.  However, wage growth since 2006 has not done too badly, growing more than 25% and outpacing the 16% growth in inflation during the period.

Benefits have grown more than 20% in the same period and showed no decline during this past recession.  Many employees are simply not aware of the costs of their benefits.  They may think that vacations and holidays and health care are the only benefits they get.  There are several mandated taxes and insurance that an employer is required to pay.

Because some benefit costs are “sticky,” and not responsive to changing business conditions, the continued strength in the labor market shows an increasing commitment on the part of employers, a growing confidence that economic conditions are fundamentally improving.  Several years ago, many employers were reluctant to take on new employees because positive news was regarded with a healthy skepticism.  “We won’t get fooled again,” as the Who song lyric goes.  Despite improving fundamentals, the market is likely to be somewhat volatile this year as investors and traders speculate on the timing and aggressiveness of any interest rate moves from the Fed.

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Purchasing Managers Index

Based on the monthly survey of purchasing managers, the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) declined slightly again this month as expected.  The manufacturing sector slid a bit this past month but employment in the service sectors popped up, keeping the composite index up above the benchmark of strong growth.  If the post-recession trend continues, we might see one more month of softening within this growth period.

New orders and employment in the service sectors are the key indicators that I highlight to get a more focused analysis of growth trends.  When this blend of the two factors stays above 55, the benchmark of strong growth, the economy is strong.  Except for a slight dip below that mark (54.4) last month, this blend has been above 55 for ten months now.

We can also see the brief periods of steady decline in these two components in 2011, 2012 and the beginning of 2013, causing the Federal Reserve to worry about a further decline into recession. The Federal Reserve enacted a series of bond buying programs called QE.  Continued economic strength may prompt a slow series of interest rate hikes.  The key word is “slow.”  Under former chairman Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve adjusted interest rates up and down too quickly, which produced small shock waves in the financial system.  Banks, businesses and investors may make unwise choices in response to rapid rate changes.  Live and learn is the lesson.

Zorro Moon

October 12, 2014

Last Sunday, George and Mabel flew back to Denver from Portland.  They took a bus shuttle from the terminal to long-term parking and discovered that neither of them could find the parking stub which indicated which section they had parked in.  Mabel dutifully looked through her purse.  “I know you kept the stub, George, but I’ll look anyway.”  Mabel remembered details like this so George knew she was probably right. “I should have put it in my wallet and it’s not there,” George replied.  They asked to be let out at the main exit booth.  The attendant told them to go inside the office where they met a nice man with a patient look.  His English was barely accented with the round vowels of Spanish.  “My name is George.  How can I help you?” the attendant announced.  “Hey, that’s my name too,” George replied, as though each of them belonged to a brotherhood.  “Well, we seem to have lost our ticket stub and we can’t remember where we parked our car,” George told him.  “What day did you come in?” the other George asked.  “Last Monday, about 7:30 in the morning.”  The attendant’s face adopted an odd stillness, his eyes looking far away. “That was a busy morning.  We were parking in GG and HH at the far end of the lot.”  Both George and Mabel were amazed at the man’s memory and said so.  The attendant smiled graciously.  He pulled a set of keys from a hook on a key board, picked up two of their bags and led them to an idle shuttle parked near the office.  At the far end of the lot, the attendant drove slowly down one row until they reached the edge of the lot, then drove down the next row.  Mabel was the first to see their car. “There it is!” she exclaimed.  George gave the attendant a $10 bill, thanking him for his help.  The attendant nodded graciously, then drove back toward the office.  “There’s someone with  a remarkable talent working at a parking lot,” Mabel remarked.  “I think our schools do a terrible job of helping students discover their own talents.   The structure of our society, our economy – it could uncover and use these talents better.”

Sitting at his desk Sunday night, George mulled over the same thought that had distracted him on the flight from Portland.  Should he sell some or all of their stock holdings?  Two indicators said yes, another said maybe, one said this was temporary.  While on vacation, he had not compiled his makeshift index based on the monthly Purchasing Managers Index.  ISM, the publishers of the index, had released the services sector figures that past Friday.  He pulled up the latest report, then input the figures into his spreadsheet.  The index seemed to have peaked in September at a very robust reading near 70, rising up a few points from an already robust reading in August.

This composite of economic activity was a “stay out of trouble” indicator, giving buy and sell signals when the index rose above and below 50.  The last signal had been a buy signal in August 2009 when the SP500 was about half its current value.  Before that, the previous cue had been a sell signal in January 2008, a month after the official start of the recession.  Because employment and new orders were the largest components of the index, a chart of just these two components of the services sector reflected the larger composite.

So, the American economy was strong and Friday’s employment report had been a positive surprise. What seemed to be worrying investors was weakness over in Europe.  But Europe had been nearing recession for a few quarters now and that had not worried investors during the past year and a half.  Yes, no, yes, no decisions swirled around in George’s head.  Should he wait till the market opened Monday morning and see what the mood was?  Well, what if it was rather flat?  What would that tell him?  As Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.  So George did.  He put in an order to sell half of their stock holdings, essentially taking both forks of the road.

On Monday the market opened up above Friday’s close, indicating that a number of investors had put their buy orders in over the weekend after the positive employment report.  Active traders took the market back down below the level of Friday’s close.  In 1970s lingo, it was “negative vibes,” or negative sentiment in normal speak.

The Federal Reserve announced that they would begin publishing a labor market index that compiled 19 different labor market indicators to give an overall report card on employment.  The index was first proposed in a working paper published in May and the Fed was cautioning that the index was not “official.”

A chart of the various components of the index showed the correlations of each component with overall economic activity in the country.

The Fed provided a permanent link to a spreadsheet that they would update each month.  It was  a zero-based index.  Readings above zero meant overall conditions were improving; below zero, conditions were deteriorating.

The market opened up Tuesday with the news that Germany’s industrial output had dropped 4% in August.  A key leader and consistent performer, Germany was the Derek Jeter of the Eurozone.  As every baseball fan knows, if Derek was not producing, the whole team was in trouble.  The whole team in this analogy was the world.  The IMF revised their global growth rate for 2014 from 3.4% to 3.3%.  Quelle horreur!  Never mind that Tuesday’s JOLTS report showed the most job openings since 2001 when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization and started sucking jobs from the U.S.

Tuesday evening, George and Mabel watched the full moon, the Hunter’s moon, when it was about 30 degrees above the eastern horizon.  Clouds had obscured the moon when it was first rising and really big.  Wisps of clouds still drifted across the pale disk.  “It’s a Zorro moon,” George remarked.  “Zorro would go out on a night like this and undo the oppressive plans of the evil comandante.”  Mabel laughed.  “We’ll rename it the Zorro moon, then.  All those calendars we get each year will have to be changed.”  “Yeh, what’s with that?” George asked.  “No one ever sends a pamphlet of favorite quotes or prominent dates in history.  Just calendars.”

Mabel set her alarm to get up at 4:15 AM so she could watch the lunar eclipse.  She woke up about 7:30 that morning, disappointed that her sleeping self had turned off the alarm without even bothering to notify her lunar eclipse watching self.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Federal Reserve released the minutes of the September meeting of the Open Market Committee, the group within the Fed that that determined interest rate policy.  The sentiment of the Committee was rather dovish, and the stock market rallied up sharply in the last two hours of trading.  Still, the close was not as high as the opening price on Monday, two days earlier.  Volume was the highest it had been since August 1st and should have been confirmation that sentiment had reversed to the positive.  George was still cautious.

The market is essentially an argument over value.  The difference between each day’s high and low price indicates how much investors are arguing. The 5-day average of that difference was now double the 200 day average and rising.  George had learned that bigger arguments usually led to lower prices.  He had enjoyed a nice run up in 20-year Treasuries during the summer but then got out in mid-September.  Now two thirds of his investing stash was sitting on the sidelines in cash.  Treasuries had rallied, proving that it was difficult, if not impossible, to time the market.  Something George didn’t like was the relatively small movement in the price of Treasuries as the stock market rallied.

On Thursday, the market dropped quickly on news that German exports had dropped almost 6% in August. By the end of the day, the SP500 index had lost about 2%.  Bears saw an opportunity to hawk their books warning of the coming collapse of the global economy.  “Is the end near?  Next we go to Doug Munchie of Funchee Crunchie Capital.  Doug, tell our audience some companies that you think will do well as the coming global meltdown approaches.” Doug is looking sharp in a $300 white shirt and a $200 blue and red tie. “Good morning, Megan.  For our cautious clients, we recommend gold Lego blocks.  Our clients can construct many creative projects with their gold while they sit out the collapse.” “Thanks, Doug.  When we come back, we’ll talk to a priest who claims that holy water can cure Ebola.”

By the time he died, George thought, he will have heard at least 1 million hustles.  “Doctor, do you know the cause of Mr. Liscomb’s death?”  “Yes, he suffered from Bullshitis, the accumulation of a lifetime of blather.  A person’s brain becomes clogged and shuts down.”

The decline continued on Friday, bringing the SP500 back to the price levels of late May.  The closing price touched the 200-day average.  For long term investors, the next week might be a good  opportunity to move some idle cash into stocks. If the downturn became a serious decline, the 50 day average would cross below the 200-day average in a few weeks or so.  That crossing was called the Death Cross, a serious shift in sentiment.

Watching the news later that evening, Mabel asked, “We’re fine?”  “We’re fine,” George replied. Then he changed the subject to their recent visit to Oregon.  “I wish could be close to the ocean and yet not have all the dampness.”  “It’s called southern California,” Mabel quipped.