Dashboard update: bond yields fall with renewed demand for safe assets and lower interest rate expectations

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United States Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard: Updated June 11, 2016

Dashboard weekly update summary:

The latest labor market data show continued overall improvement in wages and low levels of new jobless claims, offering some consolation after the surprisingly weak May jobs report (see last week’s update). Equity market volatility increased, however, as already lackluster global growth forecasts were revised down by the World Bank. Domestic and foreign investors are shifting their portfolio of assets to fixed streams of income. Global bond yields, including on U.S. government and corporate debt, fell considerably during the past week’s rally. Investors are searching for higher returns on safe assets and responding to lower interest rate expectations.

Wages grow faster than productivity

Narrowing a long and persistent gap between productivity and wage growth, recent data suggest wages have been increasing in many industries. For most of the past decade, worker’s productivity (the output for each hour of work) grew more rapidly than their wages. The gap was in part from technology making work more efficient, but it also came from a weak labor market. An economy in which there are many qualified workers for each opening makes workers less likely to quit and more likely to accept no or small increases in wages. Companies simply do not need to rely on pay increases as a motivation when fear of unemployment is very strong.

While wage growth crawled along for a decade, productivity growth remained strong. Recent data suggest, however, that the long upward trend in productivity may be facing at least a hiccup. Meanwhile, overall measures show wages have been growing at a reasonable pace since mid-2014. Revised first quarter 2016 index data on wages and productivity shows the former nearly catching the latter.

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When oil prices fall, for example, there is a transfer of wealth from the stakeholders of oil producers (who face a fall in revenue) to households (who spend less on fuel and energy). Likewise, a fall or stagnation in corporate profits can result in an increase in worker’s relative share of output. Wages, unlike commodity or stock prices, tend not to be cut. Where the past year has seen labor markets and workers’ bargaining power improve, it has seen productivity and corporate profits stagnate.

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Additionally, data for the week of June 4 on new claims of joblessness was strong, with only 264,000 such claims. Overall, reasonable wage increases, an increasing labor share of output, and low headline unemployment paint a better picture for households and aggregate demand than the last jobs report’s payroll growth and participation rate data suggest. That said, labor market improvements are traditionally slow and gradual, while deterioration is rapid and steep. The June jobs report should therefore have major implications for the Fed’s rate hike decision.

Equity market volatility climbs

U.S. equity markets gains over the first four trading days of the week were erased on Friday by a large sell off. The CBOE volatility index, VIX, increased to 17 from 13.5 a week earlier. The bond rally described below suggests that there has been a flight to safety. Investors have been adjusting in part to new forecasts of generally lower global growth. Likewise, there are several large events on the horizon (brexit, elections, central bank policy divergence, etc.) suggesting fluctuations and jumps in equity markets (as well as debt and forex markets).

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Bond markets rally as investors seek safe assets and interest rate expectations fall

Over the past week, U.S. treasury bonds, t-bills, and corporate bond yields fell. Elsewhere, ten-year German bund yields are nearly negative and Japanese ten-year government bond yields have fallen to -0.13%. People’s tolerance for extremely low returns is limited, and U.S. government debt offers a relatively higher return. During the past week, ten-year U.S. treasury bonds reached a four year low, partially as a result of strong foreign demand.

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The spread between 10-year and 2-year treasuries sits currently at a nine-year low. Potential causes for the flat yield curve include the following: 1) investor search for return driving driving down long- and medium-duration bond yields, 2) investor fear of a business cycle downturn and a near future need for monetary easing, and 3) lower interest rate expectations as a result of recent data taking June (and potentially July) rate hikes off the table.

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Check out the full dashboard for more than 80 indicators of U.S. economic activity:

U.S. Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016

I also updated the dashboard for Japan:

Japan Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016

 

 

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U.S. economy added surprisingly few jobs in May, likely delaying the next Fed funds rate hike

Monitor more than 80 economic indicators with the macro and markets dashboard:

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United States Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard: Updated June 4, 2016

Dashboard update summary:

The employment summary released on Friday was surprisingly weak, with only 38,000 new jobs added to the U.S. economy during May and previous month figures revised down. The BLS estimate was dramatically below consensus forecasts. Many macroeconomic indicators remain positive and in line with Fed targets; households have been spending and investing more and inflation is above one percent. However, the surprise job growth weakness is sufficient to delay the expected timetable for Fed interest rate hikes.

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Macro: GDP revised upward but business investment still strongly negative

In the second estimate, 2016 Q1 U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) growth was revised upward to 0.8 percent from 0.5 percent. Private inventory investment did not decrease as much as previously estimated. Gross domestic investment from businesses remains strongly negative, following negative corporate profits in 2015 Q4 and very low profits in 2016 Q1. Slow real GDP growth is a result of the offset of negative business investment on sound household data. Household incomes increased in April, while expenditures decreased slightly in real terms but remain strong.

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Jobs day disappoints

Economists’ consensus view that between 100,000 to 200,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy in May was met on Friday with a surprisingly paltry 38,000 increase estimate from the BLS. The weak data was surprising enough to cause large immediate jumps in bond and foreign exchange markets.

Meanwhile, the headline unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent from 5.0 percent, the largest decrease in several months. The fall in the headline rate had more to do with people “leaving the labor force” than with the addition of new jobs, unfortunately. The labor force participation rate fell to 62.6 percent in May. Many of those who left the labor force had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more and where therefore discouraged enough to stop trying to find a job.

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Bond and FX markets react

Treasury bill and bond constant maturity yields fell in response to the expected delay of interest rate hikes. The yield curve (see below a simple visualization) remains relatively low and flat. The real yield on a five year treasury, for example, fell to -0.22 percent on Friday, June 3. Foreign exchange markets saw an almost universally stronger U.S. dollar in response to the jobs report. The dollar closed roughly two percent weaker against the Euro, Yen, Australian Dollar, and Ruble, roughly one and a half percent weaker against the Swiss Franc, Brazilian Real, Turkish Lira, and Malaysian Ringgit, and more than three percent against the South African Rand.

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Rate hike delay

While U.S. macroeconomic data has not been thrilling, labor market strength and wage increases were, in the previous few months, supportive of a June Fed Funds target rate increase of a quarter point, to 0.5-0.75 percent. The new jobs report, therefore, softens the strongest pillar. Markets have basically taken a June hike off the table. The next jobs report will be watched very closely and will likely determine whether a July hike is appropriate. Given the timing of Fed meetings and the expected gradual increase rate, it is more likely that we only see one rate hike during 2016.

See more than 80 indicators in the Dashboard:

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Dashboard update: consumer-side improvement and other reasons not to worry

Dashboard PDF file:

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (May 14, 2016)
Dashboard Update Summary

Surprisingly good April retail sales growth and preliminary signs of strong May consumer sentiment suggest a continued strengthening of consumer spending. Higher wages and low but rising inflation expectations boost individuals’ willingness to make discretionary purchases. Recent quarterly earnings data suggest that these purchases are increasingly taking place through Amazon and online retailers rather than department stores. Equities were lower over the past five trading days, partially as a result of poor earnings data from the latter. Jobless claims increased in the first week of May, but remain within a reasonable range. The yield curve flattened during the week as the spread between ten-year treasury bonds and three-month t-notes fell to its lowest level since February. The dollar appreciated against most major currencies.

Consumer sentiment and spending rising

Retail sales excluding food increased year over year by 2.7 percent in April. This is the second largest increase since January 2015 (the largest in the past 15 months was in February). In April, Retails sales overall were up three percent over the previous year and up a surprising 1.3 percent over the previous month. Many online retailers, including Amazon, had their strongest-ever quarter in Q1. Meanwhile, this week’s earnings releases from Nordstrom, Kohl’s, and Macy’s shows a continuation in consumers’ pivot away from U.S. department stores. U.S. equities closed lower on the week, with the S&P down half a percent, the Nasdaq down 0.4 percent, and the Dow down 1.2 percent.

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Prices remain low with some hills on the horizon

The uptick in retail sales can be attributed in part to higher wages for consumers, as evidenced in recent labor market data. Additionally, fuel prices remain low, yet there is some sign that movement is towards increasing price levels, which incentivizes spending today, especially given a very low return on savings. The April producer price index (PPI), which measures how prices of the inputs to production change, was released this week. The PPI for all commodities (intermediate demand) increased to a -4 percent year over year change, from -4.8. Energy prices fell less dramatically in the twelve month period ending in April. Oil prices climbed 3.5 percent during the past week, but remain below $50 a barrel, at $46.21.

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Jobless claims rise

The number of new jobless claims during the week of May 7 was higher at 294,000. While the highest level of new jobless claims since February of 2015 may seem startling, the level is still low and the increasing bargaining power of labor makes voluntarily leaving a job less scary.

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Yield curve flattens as foreign investors avoid negative yields

Another potentially startling indicator is the flattening of treasury yield curves, but again, there is an explanation to assuage concern. The yield spread between ten-year treasuries their three-month t-bill counterpart fell to 1.43 on Friday, from 1.6 a week earlier, as ten-year yields fell and three-month yields rose. Likewise, the spread between ten- and two-year treasuries fell. While this indicator is a potential bad omen, we must remember that foreign inflows to treasury auctions have been increased by negative interest rates in many EU countries and Japan. For example, as ten-year Japanese Government Bond yields remain negative, Japanese investors increasingly shift portfolios to the U.S. government equivalent.

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Dollar appreciates against trading partners

Lastly, the U.S. dollar was stronger against most major currencies during the past week. The dollar appreciated by 1.4 percent against the Yen, by 3.5 percent against the Rand, by 0.85 percent against the Euro, and by half a percent against the British Pound.

I’ve redesigned the exchange rates table to be quicker to read, and include it below.

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Rates above as of May 13, 2016

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