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August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

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Summary:
Instead of trying to predict when the economy will deteriorate in the distant future, we simply look for deterioration among the leading indicators. Instead of predicting the next 10 steps, we seek to predict the next 1-2 steps for the economy. Here’s a brief summary of the leading economic indicators we track Positive factors Labor market Financial conditions Loans Inflation-adjusted new orders Heavy Truck Sales Inflation-adjusted retail sales Neutral Corporate profits Negative factors Housing Yield curve Average weekly hours High yield spreads Earnings revisions Conclusion Overall, macro points to continued economic growth. A recession is unlikely to start within the next few months. Right now, the most likely start date for a recession is in 2020. If macro remains decent when

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Instead of trying to predict when the economy will deteriorate in the distant future, we simply look for deterioration among the leading indicators. Instead of predicting the next 10 steps, we seek to predict the next 1-2 steps for the economy.

Here’s a brief summary of the leading economic indicators we track

Positive factors

  1. Labor market
  2. Financial conditions
  3. Loans
  4. Inflation-adjusted new orders
  5. Heavy Truck Sales
  6. Inflation-adjusted retail sales

Neutral

  1. Corporate profits

Negative factors

  1. Housing
  2. Yield curve
  3. Average weekly hours
  4. High yield spreads
  5. Earnings revisions

Conclusion

Overall, macro points to continued economic growth. A recession is unlikely to start within the next few months.

Right now, the most likely start date for a recession is in 2020. If macro remains decent when January 2020 comes around, we will push the most likely start date for a recession even further into the future. Be flexible as the data changes.

Why macro matters

The economy drives corporate earnings, which drives the stock market in the long term. As a result, bull markets usually coincide with economic expansions, and big bear markets usually coincide with recessions.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Since the stock market tends to peak before recessions begin, we need to look at leading economic indicators, which also deteriorate before recessions begin.

This doesn’t mean that the stock market’s exact top cannot occur before macro starts to peak. This happened in January 1973, when the stock market peaked a few months before macro started to deteriorate. However, the biggest part of bear markets always occur after macro has deteriorated significantly.

Positives

Labor market

Labor market indicators do not show any significant deterioration right now.

Initial Claims

Initial Jobless Claims measures the number of jobless claims filed by people who are seeking to receive jobless benefits. In other words, this measures the number of people who are recently unemployed.

The latest reading for Initial Claims decreased from 217k to 209k. More importantly, Initial Claims has been trending sideways over the past 10 months.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, Initial Claims trended higher before a recession began. This is still a positive point for macro, but watch out over the next few months in case Initial Claims trends upwards because Initial Claims is very low right now.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Continued Claims

Continued Jobless Claims measures the number of people who are still filing jobless claims (past the initial claim). In other words, this measures the number of people who remain recently unemployed.

The latest reading for Continued Claims decreased from 1.699 million to 1.684 million. More importantly, Continued Claims has been trending sideways over the past 9 months.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, Continued Claims trended higher before a recession began. This is still a positive point for macro, but watch out over the next few months in case Continued Claims trends upwards because Continued Claims is very low right now.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Unemployment Rate

The Unemployment Rate’s latest reading remained at 3.7%. On the whole however, the Unemployment rate is still quiet low.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

This is still a positive point for macro because in the past, Unemployment trended sideways or upwards before a recession began.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

*The Unemployment Rate lags Initial Claims and Continued Claims a little.

KC Fed Labor Market Conditions Index, Momentum Indicator

The KC Fed Labor Market Conditions Index’s latest reading increased from 0.912 to 0.954. More importantly, this index is still above zero.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

According to FRED: “A positive value indicates that labor market conditions are above their long-run average, while a negative value signifies that labor market conditions are below their long-run average.” 0 is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for recessions.

The KC Fed Labor Market Conditions Index remains above zero, which means that this “necessary but not sufficient” requirement for recessions has not been fulfilled.

Financial conditions

Indicators related to financial conditions remain relatively loose. This is a positive for macro.

Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Credit Subindex

The Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Credit Subindex is very low at -0.68. Looking at the bigger picture, the Credit Subindex is trending sideways right now.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In a credit-driven economy, the Credit Subindex tends to trend upwards (i.e. tighten) before a recession begins.

Banks’ lending standards

The latest reading for Net Percentage of Banks Tightening Standards rose from -4.2% to -2.8%. On the whole the banks’ lending standards are trending sideways.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, lending standards tightened for several quarters before a recession began. This is a positive for macro right now.

Loans

The latest reading for Delinquency Rate on All Loans has remained the same as last quarter (1.53%).  More importantly, the Delinquency Rate has been trending downwards.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, the Delinquency Rate trended higher before a recession began. This is a positive for macro.

Inflation-adjusted new orders

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

The latest reading for inflation-adjusted new orders increased from 170.41 to 176.32. More importantly, inflation-adjusted new orders is trending up.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, inflation-adjusted new orders trended downwards before recessions began (this indicator is a component in the Conference Board’s LEI). This is a positive for macro right now.

But if new orders continue to fall for a few more months, this will be a negative for macro in the second half of 2019.

Heavy Truck Sales

The latest figure for Heavy Truck Sales fell to 0.516 million. Looking at the bigger picture, Heavy Truck Sales is trending upwards.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, Heavy Truck Sales trended downwards before recessions began. This is a positive for macro right now.

Inflation-adjusted retail sales

The latest reading for inflation-adjusted Retail Sales increased from 2028 to 2036. More importantly, inflation-adjusted Retail Sales is once again trending upwards.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, inflation-adjusted Retail Sales trended sideways before recessions began. This is a positive for macro.

Neutral

Corporate Profits

Figures related to corporate profits suggest that the economic expansion is definitely late-cycle.

Unit Profits

Unit Profit’s latest reading fell from 100.19 to 95.35. More importantly, Unit Profits has been trending sideways for years.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

This is a late-cycle sign for the economic expansion. In the past, Unit Profits usually peaked mid-expansion. While this suggests that the economic expansion is late-cycle, this indicator is not a timing tool. Unit Profits can fall for years before a recession begins.

Corporate Profits

Inflation adjusted corporate profits’ latest reading fell from 7.38 to 7.07. More importantly, inflation-adjusted corporate profits are trending sideways.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, inflation-adjusted corporate profits trended downwards for several quarters before recessions began. If corporate profits continue to trend downwards, this will be a negative for macro in 2020.

Negatives

Housing

The housing market – a key leading segment of the U.S. economy, shows signs of mild deterioration. The deterioration is not significant

Housing Starts

The latest reading for Housing Starts decreased from 1265k to 1253k. More importantly, Housing Starts is trending sideways/downwards.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, Housing Starts trended downwards before recessions began. This is a negative for macro.

Building Permits

The latest reading for Building Permits decreased from 1,299k to 1,232k. More importantly, Building Permits is trending downwards.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, Building Permits trended downwards before recessions began. This is a negative for macro.

New Home Sales

The latest reading for New Home Sales increased from 604k to 646k. More importantly, New Home Sales is trending sideways.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, New Home Sales trended downwards before recessions began. This is neutral for macro.

NAHB Housing Market Index

The latest reading for the NAHB Housing Market Index increased from 64 to 65. After trending downwards in 2018, this leading indicator is starting to recover on the whole.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, the NAHB Housing Market Index trended downwards before recessions began. This is a slight negative for macro right now, but could turn positive if it continues to improve for a few more months.

Monthly Supply of Houses

The latest reading for Monthly Supply of Houses went down from 6.7 to 6.3. More importantly, this indicator is trending sideways.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

The Monthly Supply of Houses looks at the ratio of houses for sale vs. houses sold. In other words, it’s a measure of inventory in the housing market and how hard it is for sellers to sell. The higher this ratio, the tighter the housing market becomes.

In the past, the Monthly Supply of Houses usually (but not always) trended upwards before recessions began. This is neutral for macro right now.

Yield curve

Various sections of the yield curve have either inverted or are close to inverting.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Here is the popular 10 year – 3 month yield curve, which has been inverted for weeks.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

The 10 year – 3 month yield curve tends to invert 1-1.5 years before a recession begins. The more accurate recession signal occurs when the 10 year – 3 month yield curve steepens after inverting (Fed cuts short term rates as the economy falls into a recession). This hasn’t clearly happened.

Here is the 10 year -2 year yield curve, which is close to inverting.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Like the 10 year – 3 month yield curve, the 10 year – 2 year yield curve tends to invert 1-1.5 years before a recession begins. This has not happened yet.

Overall, the inverting yield curve is a slight negative for macro right now. While this is extremely hyped up in the media and financial media, the yield curve is merely one of many macro points to consider.

Average Weekly Hours of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees: Manufacturing

The year-over-year % change in average weekly hours decreased to -1.65%. More importantly, this figure is negative right now.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

In the past, this figure was usually in negative territory when recessions began. This is a slight negative factor for macro right now.

This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for recessions, because clearly there are plenty of false signals.

High yield spreads

From September 2018 – present, high yield spreads have been making higher lows while the stock market has made higher highs. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for bear markets and recessions. In the past, high yield spreads trended higher before bear markets and recessions began. This is because the average bond market participant is usually more aware of risk than the average stock market participant.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Earnings revisions (not the same thing as actual earnings)

U.S. Net Earnings Revisions is now negative

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Net Earnings Revisions demonstrates how many companies are increasing their forward earnings estimates minus how many companies are decreasing their forward earnings estimates. In the past, Net Earnings Revisions was negative when recessions started.

This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for recessions, because clearly there are plenty of false signals (see 2011-2016).

Valuations

And lastly, a quick word on valuations. The U.S. stock market’s valuations are extremely high right now, as they’ve been for most of this decade. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it.

Here’s the popular Tobin’s Q ratio

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Here’s the popular Shiller P/E ratio

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

However, valuations on their own don’t cause bear markets. Recessions do. Valuations are like the powder, and recessions are like the spark. Higher valuations = more dry powder, which means that when the next recession does hit, the explosion will be bigger.

  1. High valuations + recessions = big bear market
  2. Low valuations + recessions = big correction.

So while the bears say “valuations are high, stocks will crash!”, that is merely stating the obvious. Valuations are meant for predicting 10 year forward returns. “Eventually” stocks will always crash. But valuations have very little impact on where the stock market will go over the next month, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, etc. For example, “valuations are high = poor 10 year forward returns” might mean that the S&P goes up 5 years and then falls 5 years.

These are the S&P 500’s 1 year and 2 year forward returns vs. its valuation (P/E ratio). Notice how the correlation between the stock market’s valuation and 1-2 year forward returns is weak.

R squared = 0.0765 and 0.0646

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

Shiller P/E consistently peaked at approximately 22 from 1900 – 1994. But from 1994 – present, valuations have been consistently higher. Here’s what happens when you sell the S&P when Shiller P/E reaches to 22. As you can see, a strategy that worked pre-1994 no longer works post-1994.

August 9, 2019: leading indicators macro update

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