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Stocks staying ahead despite trade

The Days Ahead: More corporate earnings. Industrial production.

One-Minute Summary: We’re in earnings season and it’s going to be a cracker. In most earnings seasons, companies “beat” expectations because that is how the game works. Analysts put out an estimate early in the season, the CEO (well actually normally the IR guy) sucks their teeth and says, “dunno about that…”, the analyst revises down (this can repeat a few times with knowing winks), and then the company comes in and beats. Everyone happy. That’s why 70% of companies beat every quarter. It’s not that CEOs are great or analysts incompetent. It's just how it’s played.

Anyway, if you're a CEO of an S&P 500, 400 or 600 company, you didn’t even have to show up in the first and second quarter and you would have a 10% to 15% gain in earnings just from the lower corporate taxes. But if you did show up and threw in some growth and buy-backs, then your earnings will be up 22% YOY this quarter.

So, we’re celebrating a great earnings season. But most of that was in the price of the S&P 500 seven months ago, which is why stocks haven’t moved much so far this year (although up 7% from the February mini-crash). Yes, small company stocks and growth had another good week.

There were good economic numbers as well. Job openings were strong, inflation moderate, producer inflation in control but the headlines were dominated by the latest round of tariffs, which now includes onions, buffalos and maleic acid (no idea, sorry) but not cell phones or computers. And of course NATO and BREXIT. Normally, when these stories dominate the fireworks are in FX markets and that was somewhat true last week. It seems as if markets are “What’d he jus’ say? He can't mean it. We hope he doesn't mean it. He doesn't mean it.” That cycle takes about two hours these days. Tailor made for neurotics.

Stocks were broadly higher here and in Europe but on summer trading, which always has a torpid feel. The 10-Year Treasury was flat but 30-Year Treasuries strong.

1.     The next recession. One of our favorite commentators over at Financial Intelligence asked this question recently.  One lore is that recessions do not die of old age; the Fed murders them.  Which is nonsense. Recessions are normally preceded by over leverage, inflation and crisis of confidence. The Fed is merely the instrument that starts the rate cycle.

 The Fed started hiking rates in 1972, 1976, 1986, 1993 and 2004, all without triggering a recession. And in some cases, as in 1973, 1984 and 1994 they started to lower rates some two years before a recession. And that points to another problem: insufficient data. Whenever you hear someone say “a recession always come when…” you can quietly muse that there have been eight recessions in the last 64 years (so 12% of the time) and 18 in the last 103 years. If a researcher from one of the hard sciences showed up with a theory based on 18 data points, you might politely sigh.

Anyway, here’s what we think might cause some problems:

  1. Politics and trade
  2. The fiscal stimulus from the 2017 tax changes running out sooner than expected
  3. High federal debt
  4. Corporate leverage

We don't really think the consumer is a problem this time round. Yes, things like student debt are off the charts and consumer and mortgage debt are at all-time highs in absolute terms. But so is GDP and we’re fine with personal debt growing in line with nominal income. Consumer and mortgage debt is now around 70% of GDP from a 2009 peak of over 90%. Also, we’ll stick to our belief that the forces causing the recession last time don't get to do it again. So, the consumer gets a pass this time round.

Corporate debt is a different story. Here it is:

This shows corporate bonds owed by non-financial companies (blue bars) doubling from 2008. But they've also increased cash so the net borrowing is around $4.5 trillion. That reached a record level of over 20% of GDP two years ago and has since plateaued (bottom graph).

We've excluded other corporate debt, like bank loans and payables. We'd add that not all these companies are financially stretched. Still, it’s a high number and at some point, rising rates, if only at the short end, are going to make life difficult for companies. That’s why we've been lightening up on corporate credit for the last few months.

2.     What's inflation up to? Not much. Last week’s report showed headline inflation at 2.8% and core (so knock out food and energy) at 2.2%. This is above the Fed’s goal but i) the Fed uses the broader PCE measure of inflation and that’s at 1.9% and ii) there are some important base effects going on, that we've written about. The main one is cell phone rates, which fell sharply last year when Verizon cut prices, and used cars, but both are pretty much done. The Fed’s, rather difficult, job is to differentiate between temporary and entrenched inflation.

The Atlanta Fed tries to do this with its Sticky and Flexible measures of inflation. Sticky prices are ones that don't change too much. The classic example is coin-operated laundries, which change their prices once every six years. The list also includes fees, rent and medical costs. Flexible prices are those that change a lot. So things like vegetables, gas and clothes change prices every few weeks. This is what’s going on with the two:

As you would expect, Flexible prices are volatile with prices swinging from -3.0% to 3.5% in the last year. Sticky prices are moving much more slowly and haven’t changed their rate of growth much in the last four years. We think it's likely to stay that way. And as for wages?

They're not keeping up with inflation (black line). To some, this is a puzzle. Low unemployment, low participation and a tax change trumpeted as good for workers and their wages should lead to wage increases. But, no. There has been some increase in hours worked, so take-home pay is up. But it's by a very small amount. For us, real wages have to increase to push inflation up meaningfully and, so far, ‘aint ‘appening.

Bottom Line: More good earnings numbers coming up. Stocks are within a whisper of all time highs but, if companies report concerns about tariffs, expect some weakness. We still favor small company stocks

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