Lazy Days of Summer
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 19 = 15484
SPX + 2 = 1682
NAS + 7 = 3607
10 YR YLD – .04 = 2.55%
OIL + .52 = 106.47
GOLD – 1.60 = 1284.20
SILV + .01 = 20.03
On a quiet Monday in the middle of the summer, in the middle of July, stocks pulled out modest gains today, but it was good enough for another record for the Dow Industrials and the S&P 500. The S&P posted its 8th consecutive advance. The Nasdaq 100 posted its 14th consecutive advance. Volume was light, the slowest trading session of any full trading day this year. So, this record setting rally is looking a little long in the tooth.
The Commerce Department reports retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.4% last month, that was less than expected. Let’s break it down: Sales got a big lift in June from the auto industry, with purchases up 1.8%. That’s the biggest gain since last November. Gasoline sales, meanwhile, climbed 0.7% on a seasonally adjusted basis. Sales also rose for home-furnishings, pharmaceuticals, personal care, clothes and hobby items. Sales fell 2.2% at home-improvement stores, by 1.2% at bars and restaurants and by 1% at department stores.
The auto sector generates about one-fifth of all retail spending. Excluding autos, sales were unchanged. So, here’s what is happening; the price of gas is going up; people are trading in their old gas guzzlers for more fuel efficient cars; the savings on gas pay for the newer car. Take away autos and higher gas prices and sales were negative.
Consumer spending is the main engine of economic growth, so if retail sales drop, that means we probably need to revise expectations for gross domestic product. The estimates are that second quarter GDP would be about 1.4%, now we can probably lower that to 1%. Without stronger growth in consumer spending, businesses won’t invest as much.
Remember that oil prices are a huge economic driver in this country. Rising oil prices, probably more than the sequester or most other issues, tends to affect consumer behavior about as much as anything. The basic reason is that prices are posted on the street corner. We are all acutely aware of prices and for most of us we have to drive. One of the few options is to get a new fuel efficient car. If a person (or state government, or other organization that cannot easily pass through its costs) faces an increase in oil costs, it has a tendency to cut back in discretionary spending, since many oil expenditures are for necessities, like commuting to work.
Also, food prices tend to rise at the same time as oil prices. This occurs because oil is used very extensively in raising crops (operating farm machinery, herbicides and pesticides, irrigation, fertilizer) and in food transportation and packaging. Higher oil and food prices directly affect the inflation rate. Furthermore, if prices of other types of goods rise because of higher transportation costs, this also tends to raise inflation rates.
In the 2004 -2006 period, when oil prices rose, the Federal Reserve raised target interest rates, from 1% to over 5%, specifically mentioning rising oil prices, and their expected impact on inflation rates as a problem. To the extent that these higher interest rates affected consumer loans, the higher interest costs also acted as a reduction to income, over and above higher food costs.
If oil and food prices are higher, some of the more marginal buyers are likely to find it difficult to keep up their payments, and miss payments, creating an increase in debt defaults.
Now remember back to economic slowdowns in this country and there has typically been a hike in oil prices in the general vicinity. A Financial Times blog by Gavyn Davies says something very similar:
Each of the last five major downturns in global economic activity has been immediately preceded by a major spike in oil prices. Sometimes (e.g. in the 1970s and in 1990), the surge in oil prices has been due to supply restrictions, triggered by Opec or by war in the Middle East. Other times (e.g. in 2008), it has been due to rapid growth in the demand for oil.(or speculation.)
But in both cases the contractionary effects of higher energy prices have eventually proven too much for the world economy to shrug off.
Most economists reckon that the price of oil would have to rise to at least $120 a barrel, and stay there, to threaten the recovery. Or maybe the level is $110 a barrel. It’s tough to determine exactly; the figure used to be $80 a barrel. At any rate, we start to feel the slowdown long before we hit the specific price level.
If there were no problem with oil prices leading to recession, prices could keep on rising as much as they need to, to encourage additional production and to encourage alternatives. It is the fact that high oil prices cause recession, and the fact that recession tends to cause oil prices to drop, that prevents oil prices from continuing to rise, in a fashion that would allow oil companies, and makers of alternatives to be able to rely on the higher prices. This hampers the continued growth of oil supply.
So, there is a balancing act between production and recession, and included in that balancing act is that much of our oil comes from oil exporting countries, and they have specific oil prices that they require, not just for exploration and drilling but also to maintain their state budgets and their own economies.
So, on a slow summer day we can look at earnings. S&P 500 companies’ second-quarter earnings to have grown 2.8 percent from a year earlier, with revenue up 1.5 percent from a year ago. The big earnings announcement today from Citigroup; its second-quarter profit rose 41%. Net income rose to $4.2 billion compared with $2.9 billion a year ago. Big revenue gains in emerging markets and Citi’s securities business; profits improved with cost cutting measures.
On Wednesday, Fed Chairman Bernanke is scheduled to delivery his semi-annual Humphrey Hawkins testimony on Capitol Hill, and following all the ruckus past comments caused, we can expect the most non-committal, bland, boring testimony you can imagine.
And there is some expectation that the second half will pick up, but there isn’t much to indicate a big increase. The global economy isn’t going to drive economic growth in the US. The global economy may no longer be able to rely on China to be the growth engine it’s been in the past. China’s official statistics agency announced the world’s second largest economy grew 7.5% in the second quarter as industrial production and fixed asset investment continued to dip. While the slowdown came in line with expectations, it presages further slowdowns, as China’s GDP will probably average 7.5% this year, falling to 6.9% next year, which given the size of China’s economy has important implications for global growth going forward. No hard landing for China, but continued growth contraction for several quarters to come.
A final note on Citigroup today:
Last week, four senators unveiled the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act. The pushback from people representing the megabanks was immediate but also completely lame — the weakness of their arguments against the proposed legislation is a major reason to think that this reform idea will ultimately prevail.
The strangest argument against the Act is that it would not have prevented the financial crisis of 2007-08. This completely ignores the central role played by Citigroup.
It is always a mistake to suggest there is any panacea that would prevent crises — either in the past or in the future. And none of the senators — Maria Cantwell of Washington, Angus King of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — proposing the legislation have made such an argument. But banking crises can be more or less severe, depending on the nature of the firms that become most troubled, including their size relative to the financial system and relative to the economy, the extent to which they provide critical functions, and how far the damage would spread around the world if they were to fall.
At its peak in 2008, Citigroup’s assets were around $2.5 trillion — we can call that over 15 percent of GDP. It was the largest bank in the U.S. and arguably the largest bank in the world. As a result of the crisis and the bailout measures put in place by both the Bush and Obama administrations, we have five groups of firms (with a holding company at the core) that resemble Citi in the run-up to 2007: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup itself.
All of them are now undoubtedly too big to fail.
The point of the New Glass-Steagall Act is to complement other measures in place or under consideration.
Nothing can completely remove the risk of future financial crisis. We can have a safer financial system that works better for the broader economy — as we had after the reforms of the 1930s. Or we can have a system in which a few relatively large firms are encouraged to follow the model of Citigroup and to become ever more careless and on a grander scale.