In my opinion, the latest numbers on the US economy were positive last month. After plummeting for the first half of February, stock markets became markedly more positive over the second half. International equity prices seem to have regained their footing and oil prices are well off the lows of the year as well. I still see the global growth environment as tepid: with the US being the main bright spot. Despite the international headwinds, I expect the Fed to begin to signal it will continue to tighten according to plan.
Domestic highlights in February
Our Astor Economic Index® (“AEI”) shows growth somewhat above the recent average and slightly stronger than last month. The AEI is a proprietary index that evaluates selected employment and output trends in an effort to gauge the current pace of US economic growth.
I saw the employment report (nonfarm payrolls) for February as broadly positive. The number of new jobs was almost exactly at its two year average. I see no sign of broad based weakness in the economy when viewing the payroll numbers. Readers who want to burnish the negative case may have to dive into the weekly aggregate payroll. This number takes the number of employees and multiplies by the hours per week and again by dollars per hour. The result is something like a weekly wage bill and it posted a rare down month in February as hourly earnings and hours worked both posted modest declines.
In short: I think the pessimism in the first two months of the year were driven by fearful projections rather than data and that current views of the state of US economy are more realistic.
Last month, I was hoping for signs of strength in the world manufacturing cycle. It seems as if my hopes will have to wait at least until spring. While the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Index for the US showed a modest (but welcome!) bounce for the month, the picture in the rest of the world was not so rosy. The chart below weighs PMIs in roughly the G-20 countries, each one weighed by their GDP. This measure is looking for new low since 2012.
I believe the next red-letter day for the market should be FOMC Chair Yellen’s post meeting press conference on March 16th. Few expect the Fed to raise rates but many will be placing bets on the nature of the committee’s communications. Will the FOMC be hawkish or dovish? The Fed has repeatedly said they are data dependent and not tied to the calendar. However, as University of Oregon Economist Tim Duy has pointed out: we will need some clarity on which data they are dependent on.
In my view, the case for promising to raise rates again soon is that continued strength in the economy will move unemployment below the natural rate by a fair amount and perhaps for an extended period. In the view of Vice Chair Stanley Fischer for example, such labor market strength would risk setting off enough of an inflationary process that even larger rate hikes would be necessary to contain it.
However, I believe there are several complicating factors to give the Hawks a pause. First, is the tightening of financial conditions reflected in higher rates for corporate borrowers as well as the volatility and general decline of equity prices. Second, inflation expectations, while hard to measure, may be declining. Inflation expectations derived from market prices are substantially lower than they were a year ago though survey-based expectations may have stabilized. The chart below shows five year forward forecasts of CPI from surveys an derived from market prices.
My prediction is the Fed will raise not rates in either March or April and instead, focus on the tightening in the financial markets and weakness in inflation expectations in its released statement. Therefore I am expecting the Fed to promise two or more hikes in 2016. My preference (if I were a voter) would be for the Fed to make it clear that it is willing to be symmetrical around the 2% inflation target and would tolerate a year or two above the target as we have spent each of the last 8 years below it.
Overall, I am pleased to see continued growth in the US despite the tepid international environment. I expect the Fed to try to move back towards, but not fully achieve, its plan of four hikes this year.
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The Astor Economic Index® is a proprietary index created by Astor Investment Management LLC. It represents an aggregation of various economic data points: including output and employment indicators. The Astor Economic Index® is designed to track the varying levels of growth within the U.S. economy by analyzing current trends against historical data. The Astor Economic Index® is not an investable product. When investing, there are multiple factors to consider. The Astor Economic Index® should not be used as the sole determining factor for your investment decisions. The Index is based on retroactive data points and may be subject to hindsight bias. There is no guarantee the Index will produce the same results in the future. The Astor Economic Index® is a tool created and used by Astor. All conclusions are those of Astor and are subject to change.