With the Rapture behind us, we can now focus less on the end of the world and more on the economic tug of war. As we approach the midpoint of 2011, equity markets were down -1.4% last month (S&P 500 index) and are virtually flat since February – trading within a narrow band of approximately +/- 5% over that period. Investors are filtering through data as we speak, reconciling record corporate profits and margins with decelerating economic and employment trends.
Here are some of the issues investors are digesting:
Profits Continue Chugging Along: There are many crosscurrents swirling around the economy, but corporations are sitting on fat profits and growing cash piles owing success to several factors:
- International Expansion: A weaker dollar has made domestic goods and services more affordable to foreigners, resulting in stronger sales abroad. The expansion of middle classes in developing countries is leading to the broader purchasing power necessary to drive increasing American exports.
- Rising Productivity: Cheap labor, new equipment, and expanded technology adoption have resulted in annualized productivity increases of +2.9% and +1.6% in the 4th quarter and 1st quarter, respectively. Eventually, corporations will be forced to hire full-time employees in bulk, as bursting temporary worker staffs and stretched employee bases will hit output limitations.
- Deleveraging Helps Spending: As we enter the third year of the economic recovery, consumers, corporations, and financial institutions have become more responsible in curtailing their debt loads, which has led to more sustainable, albeit more moderate, spending levels. For instance, ever since mid-2008, when recessionary fundamentals worsened, consumer debt in the U.S. has fallen by more than $1 trillion.
Fed Running on Empty: The QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II) government security purchase program, designed to stimulate the economy by driving interest rates lower, is concluding at the end of this month. If the economy continues to stagnate, there’s a possibility that the tank may need to be re-filled with some QE3? Maintaining the 30-year fixed rate mortgage currently around 4.25%, and the 10-year Treasury note yielding around 3.05% will be a challenge after the program expires. Time will tell…
Slogging Through Mud: Although corporate profits are expanding smartly, economic momentum, as measured by real Gross Domestic Product (NYSE:GDP) growth, is struggling like a vehicle spinning its wheels in mud. Annualized first quarter GDP growth registered in at a meager +1.8% as the economy weans itself off of fiscal stimulus and adjusts to more normalized spending levels. An elevated 9% unemployment rate and continued weak housing market is also putting a lid on consumer spending. Offsetting the negative impacts of the stimulative spending declines have been the increasing tax receipts achieved as a consequence of seven consecutive quarters of GDP growth.
Mixed Bag – Euro Confusion: Germany reported eye-popping first quarter GDP growth of +5.2%, the steepest year-over-year rise since reunification in 1990, yet lingering fiscal concerns surrounding the likes of Greece, Portugal, and Italy have intensified. Fitch, for example, recently cut its rating on Greece’s long-term sovereign debt three notches, from BB+ to B+ plus, and placed the country on “rating watch negative” status. These fears have pushed up two-year Greek bond yields to over 26%. Regarding the other countries mentioned, Standard & Poor’s, another credit rating agency, cut Italy’s A+ rating, while the European Union and International Monetary Fund agreed on a $116 billion bailout program for Portugal.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article.
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