Fed officials will be closely watching the next jobs report, due in a month, to determine whether May’s performance was an aberration—potentially allowing them to proceed with a rate increase at their July or September meetings—or the beginning of a deeper slowdown across the economy.
Even with the latest pullback, the three-month average for jobs growth remains in line with the pace senior Fed officials see as appropriate for this stage of the economic expansion. (WSJ)
Is May’s terrible employment number a “one number aberration”?
- Facts: February +233k, March +186k, April +123k, May +73k (ex-Verizon). Looks like a clear trend to me. Yet, voting Fed Governor Loretta Mester said Friday afternoon:
(…) “you can’t read too much into one number” as seasonal factors loomed large and the Verizon Communications Inc. strike affected the number negatively, Mester said. “The weak employment number has not changed fundamentally my economic outlook” as “the economy is definitely moving in the right direction,” she said.
- 116k new jobs is the weakest 3-month average in 5 years.
- The breadth of job gains was bad: 51.3% of industries expanded payrolls in May, down from 53.8% in April and 56.3% in March (the recent peak was 71% in November 2014)
- Service providers, who have been propelling job growth, added just 61,000 to their ranks, less than half of the April increase.
- The last time a work stoppage had a meaningful impact on monthly jobs data—at Verizon in 2011, incidentally—an increase in temp workers helped counter the strike effect. But temp workers dropped by 21,000 last month. A pretty good leading indicator, temp workers are down by about 64,000 so far this year.
- Full time jobs dropped 312k in the last 2 months while part time jobs rose 118k.
- U.S. employers shed 96,000 information-technology jobs in May, knocking total IT employment down by 2.1% to 4.452 million, according to an analysis of Friday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data by IT industry trade group CompTIA. The slide follows similar declines in April in one of the more robust sector of the economy.
- Average hourly earnings of private-sector workers rose 5 cents to $25.59 last month (+2.5% YoY). The average workweek held steady at 34.4 hours last month for the 3rd consecutive month.
As to whether May was a head fake or a one-month aberration, the recent downward trend is in sync with Markit’s PMI Employment Index unlike in 2011, 2014 and 2015:
- Goods producing employment has declined for 4 consecutive months losing 77k jobs, down 1.2% YoY. The trend is certainly not suggestive of an “economy definitely moving in the right direction”, is it?
- Involuntary part-time work jumped a huge 468,000. We were barely back at the previous tops in one of Yellen’s favorite indicator. It has stalled this year.
This close-up shows the upturn. The hope is that we will experience a repeat of 2012-13.
AN EMBARASSED FED…
All these speeches by FOMC members in recent weeks telling us that this data-dependent Fed was confident that the conditions to raise rates were being satisfied. The culmination was on May 27th when Mrs. Yellen said that “growth looks to be picking up from the various data that we monitor”. Given all the data that I monitor, by myself in my tiny office, little of this data lately being of a “growth-picking-up” type, I sarcastically began to “watch the monitoring”, curious to see what the huge staff at the FOMC was seeing that I was not.
Throughout the month of May, I signalled multiple signs of weakness in the economy. It began in early May when the reliable PMI surveys showed no signs of a Q2 bounce and continued weak new order trends. On May 5, I wrote about the poor productivity data coupled with weak corporate revenues and new orders meaning that “something had to give” and that that something was employment. On May 18, reacting to San Francisco Fed President John Williams saying that “the data to my mind are lining up to make a good case for rate increases in the next few meetings, not just June”, I listed the news and data I had monitored since April 29 to show that there was not much of a line-up for a good case.
On May 23rd, I headlined Temp-Worker Freeze Bodes Ill for Economy from the WSJ because it is one of the labor market’s early warning data. Then we got Markit’s flash PMIs on May 24th. Both the Manufacturing and the Services PMIs pointed to no Q2 bounce on weak orders, an accelerating decline in backlogs and more cautious hiring. On May 31st, I wrote
Markit’s Services PMI declined -1.6 in May to 51.2%, bringing the composite PMI down to just 50.8%, which Markit claims is consistent with less than +1% real GDP growth. The composite PMI for employment declined -0.9 to just 51.7%, which Markit claims is consistent with payroll employment of just +128k.
And also quoted the prescient NBF:
net job gains in the help-supply agencies industry has turned negative for the first time in the current expansion on a six-month annualized basis. In the past, such a development has always preceded a sharp deceleration in the pace of overall job creation. Consequently, we see non-farm payrolls growing only 90,000 in May, the weakest showing since March of last year.
The Philly Fed updates this chart after every major economic release. Is anybody at the Washington Fed, 140 miles south, monitoring this stuff?
Beyond monitoring, there is analysis. I do no modeling nor other econometric stuff but I can think a little. The train of thought goes like this:
- Employment growth has decelerated from the +2.2% YoY range in early 2015 to +2.0% during Q4’15 and Q1’16 and to +1.7% in May. The employment backwind is slowing.
- There is nothing so far that suggests a change in trends. In both manufacturing and services, new orders remain weak, backlogs are declining and profit margins are being squeezed by rising wages and declining productivity.
- Inventory levels are high throughout the economy.
- Housing is the only sector showing a positive momentum. Businesses, exports and governments are not contributing.
- Consumer income is growing but spending patterns are not solid. April retail sales numbers were good but suspect. Redbook’s data for May were up only 0.7% YoY. Thomson Reuters’ Same Store Sales Index, which covers 80 retailers, was down 1.1% YoY in May. Even the discount group was weaker with flat sales.
- Car sales seem to have peaked cyclically last fall. They have been in a downtrend since and were –1.4% YoY in May.
- Gas prices have turned back up.
- In all, my sense is that the consumer is also getting squeezed: slower employment growth and rising inflation more than offsetting wage gains.
- And the consumer could be scared by a “vocal” Fed desperate to raise interest rates, prompting tighter debt management, and by a presidential race which can only make Americans uncertain, prompting higher savings.
- And now by a weakening economy and…
A SCARY FED
Seriously, can anybody qualify all this Fed up-Fed down thing as serious? Amid all these front page seeking Fed talking heads, we thought that Mrs Yellen was the deeper thinker and truly the boss. That faith has been lost in translation in recent months. Cynics may say this is organized propaganda. Sadly, I prefer to think that this is a clueless group pushing on a string, too focused on trying to keep markets calm, losing all credibility in the making.
Is an economic recession coming? Or will the economic slowdown coupled with rising wages result in a deeper and lasting profit recession?
Our clueless Fed is also “toolless”. The ECB has remained credible so far but its toolbox is not much better equipped. Abe’s arrows are all pointing down and China is experiencing the difficulty in transitioning such a huge economy which, in any event, is clearly slowing and struggling with excessive debt and capacity. In any event, its opacity makes it a less reliable source of comfort.
In addition, the U.S. is stuck with a lame-duck President busy issuing new regulations, a Congress absent until next spring and a Presidential race, uninspiring to say the least.
Meanwhile, Verizon gives its 40,000 workers
an 11% raise over four years, including 3% upon ratification, and 2.5% on each anniversary of the contract. In addition, they will receive a $1,250 signing bonus, and a minimum of $700 in corporate profit sharing payments in each of the next four years.
This is equivalent to a 4.3% annual wage cost increase, in a highly competitive, slow growth industry. VZ’s sales per share have grown 0.8% in the last year.
- Employment is still rising and we never know with revisions. May could prove to be an aberration as many are suggesting…
- The consumer has spending power and could decide to use it…
- Corporate earnings pre-announcements are not worsening. In fact, they are pretty good considering the apparent state of the economy. This is as of June 3rd.:
- Most recent key economic data point down, even with low interest rates, still rising employment, improving wages and ok equity markets…
- Central banks are clueless, headless and toolless.
- Fiscal stimulation in the U.S. is not around the corner.
- Even without a recession, profits are under pressure from low revenue growth rates and rising labor costs. Estimates for Q2’16 earnings are –3.6% YoY, down from –2.2% on April 1st, –3.2% on May 5 and –3.4% on May 16. We all know the game but the trend is uninspiring.
- Things are not rosier in Europe where Q2 earnings are expected down 5.7% vs –1.0% expected on April 1st. BTW, Q1 EPS were down 10.8%.
The S&P 500 Index is again bouncing off the 20 line on the dependable Rule of 20 valuation scale. The actual P/E on trailing EPS stands at 17.9 and it is especially not advisable to use forward earnings at this time given the high expectations for Q4 (+9.8%). Earnings are not about to provide any lift judging from current trends. Can we get enough investor enthusiasm to propel valuations higher into the more risky area? Not from the Fed, not from Congress, not from the current or future President as far as I can judge.
This is a game of probabilities:
- Valuations are right at the high end of the “Lower Risk” band of 15-20 and neither higher earnings nor much lower inflation are likely to provide the key to enter the “Rising Risk” area over the shorter term at least. Upside thus appears limited.
- Central bank liquidity has been excessive for a long time now and equities remain stuck at 2100.
- Potency and credibility of the only institutions that have provided leadership and actual support in recent years has diminished considerably.
- The SPX has been unable to definitely cross beyond 2100 for 18 months and its bouts of volatility have all been to the downside.
- The tilt to economic news is clearly on the negative side.
- Brexit on June 23rd.
- The U.S. elections?
I downgraded equities to 2 stars on March 28 at 2032 on the S&P 500 Index. There are no fundamentally solid reasons to upgrade. Highly risk averse investors should fold. Personally, I will keep pruning my exposure but I am not ready to downgrade to 1 star which would mean a recession/bear market ahead. But I will keenly be watching the monitoring…