First, a little housekeeping. Over the past few months we've experimented a little with going from more frequent email updates to longer, more robust monthly updates. While I have no real preference, I know it can sometimes be daunting to read a very long email. After feedback from some clients and friends we have determined brief, more frequent updates are preferable. Thus, this month is a bit of a hybrid of the two. A recap of last month along with some information from the past few days. Going forward, we'll update you from week to week.
Last Month In Brief
Wall Street shifted its focus from trade to earnings in April. On that front, the news was good: through April, first-quarter results for S&P 500 firms had beaten expectations by 5.3%, a bit better than the historical average of 4.8%. A strong first-quarter gross domestic product reading and solid consumer spending and hiring numbers did much to quell worries about the economy slowing. Existing home sales retreated again; mortgage rates went north again. Oil prices rose. Bullish sentiment was palpable.
Domestic Economic Health
Statistically speaking, economists and investors found much to like while looking at the latest round of fundamental indicators.
The first quarter had been a good one: the federal government’s initial estimate of economic growth in that period was 3.2%, far above the 2.2% of Q4 and the 2.3% consensus forecast of analysts surveyed by MarketWatch. In March alone, consumer spending increased 0.9%, and retail sales improved 1.6%.
Unemployment remained at 3.8% in March (and the U-6 jobless rate, which factors in the underemployed, was 7.3% for another month). Nonfarm payrolls grew by a net 196,000 jobs in the third month of the year, which was a nice rebound from the anemic 33,000 gain for February.
The Institute for Supply Management’s twin purchasing manager indexes, monthly gauges of U.S. service sector and manufacturing sector activity, were well above 50. (When these indices fall below 50, the sectors are judged to be contracting rather than growing.) ISM’s service sector PMI was 56.1 in March; its factory sector PMI, at 55.3.
The most-watched U.S. consumer confidence index, maintained by the Conference Board, rose 5.0 points in April to a notably high mark of 129.2. The University of Michigan’s monthly index measuring household sentiment also rose, gaining 0.3 points to reach 97.2 for April.
Yearly inflation picked up from 1.5% to 1.9% in March, but this mostly reflected a jump in gasoline and electricity costs as well as rents. This left annualized inflation near the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2.0%.
Global Economic Health
On April 10, the European Union extended the deadline for the Brexit to October 31, temporarily assuaging fears that the United Kingdom would leave the E.U. without any divorce deal. In announcing this agreement, European Council President Donald Tusk warned U.K. leaders, “Please do not waste this time.” The extension has actually been called a “flextension,” as the U.K. is free to leave the E.U. at any time before Halloween if its Parliament can finally agree to pass a withdrawal deal.
As April ended, a U.S. delegation landed in Beijing to further trade talks with China, intent to make “substantial” progress toward a truce in the tariff dispute between the two countries. While Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin told Bloomberg on April 30 that an agreement on trade enforcement methods was “close to done,” there was still much headway to be made on other issues. China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index was close to the contraction line of 50 in April, coming in at 50.1.
On May 6, the Trump tweeted he may increase tariffs on Chinese goods. Reactions to statements by President Trump regarding the ongoing trade talks between the United States and China have caused movement across several financial markets in recent days. President Trump has indicated a possible increase to existing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods.
This is most likely posturing in the short term and may prove to be an effective negotiating tactic. The jury is still out. Longer term, tariffs aren't good for anyone. Ultimately, these tariffs are taxes upon American consumers as increased costs are passed along to the customer purchasing whatever good had the tariff placed upon it.
Markets rallied on news that Chinese negotiators still intended to meet in the U.S. for further talks; though, they may not have been as close to finalizing a deal as anticipated. Markets in the U.S., China, and Europe reacted to the news, with American markets seeing recovery within hours.
As interesting as this type of news can be to follow, it’s important to take a long-range view. In this case, the fast drop and quick recovery of the markets serve to illustrate that cooler heads can prevail during market volatility.
First, the bad news. Existing home sales declined again. They were down 4.9% for March, according to the National Association of Realtors, falling right at the start of the spring home buying season. (They were also down 5.4% year-over-year.)
Mortgage rates crept back up. The average interest rate on the 30-year, fixed-rate home loan, per Freddie Mac’s weekly Primary Mortgage Market Survey, reached 4.20% on April 25; it had been 4.08% back on March 28. Average interest on the 15-year, fixed-rate home loan also rose from 3.57% to 3.64% in that timeframe.
Now, the good news. New home sales picked up in March, reaching an 18-month peak and increasing 4.5% month-over-month. Developers and builders appeared to be slashing prices, as the Census Bureau said that the median new home price fell 9.7% in March to a 2-year low of $302,700. Additionally, the NAR pending home sales index, a gauge of housing contract activity, rose 3.8% for March after a 1.0% February dip.2,11
The Fed Emphasizes Patience
The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady at its May meeting. Its May 1 policy statement noted “solid” job growth and economic activity, but only tame inflation pressure.
While the Fed was not expected to make a move, some investors wondered if its latest policy statement might hint at the possibility of a rate cut later this year. No such hint appeared. Fed chair Jerome Powell told the media Wednesday that “we don’t see a strong reason for moving in one direction or the other.”
Wall Street has entered May enjoying some April tailwinds. The earnings parade is expected to wind down this month, and as May plays out, bulls may turn their attention back to trade matters – or to something else entirely. Will stocks lose momentum at that point? It is anyone’s guess. Fundamental economic indicators are, for the most part, still strong. Key housing indicators aside, measurements of hiring, consumer spending, and business activity are holding steady. Remember that your investing approach reflects your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.
As always, we are here for you. If you have questions regarding any of the information above or anything else please give our office a call.
These are the views of FMG Marketing Library, and not necessarily those of Nick Toadvine, or Calton Associates, Inc., and should not be construed as investment advice. Neither Nick Toadvine nor Calton & Associates, Inc. gives tax or legal advice. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however, we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Please consult your financial advisor for further information.