In my view, the dreadful ice and snow storms that have been battering the east of the United States are obscuring the real strength of the economic recovery and setting the markets up to provide great opportunities over the next few weeks.
Economists have been tearing their hair out trying to de-construct the recent string of negative data surprises, which have undermined confidence in growth, to eliminate the weather effect. The first significant tainted release in this series was probably the ostensibly weak employment report for December, which we received on 10th January. The consensus had been for a 197,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, but the data showed only 74,000. Weekly earnings and hours worked also ticked down and failed to match expectations, and the headline unemployment rate apparently only fell due to a further fall in the participation rate to a new low for the cycle of 62.8%.
Further disappointments followed for building permits and pending home sales, the Manufacturing ISM survey, and vehicle sales. Finally the icing on the cake was the January employment report, released on 7th February. As in the previous month, non-farm payrolls growth disappointed, at 113,000, vs a consensus for 180,000. However, maybe we saw the first signs of Spring, as the household survey revealed a contrasting picture, with a 638,000 increase in employment, an increase in hourly earnings, a fall in the broader, U6, measure of unemployment to 12.7% (the lowest since the Fall of 2008, just after the Lehman bankruptcy, when U6 was sky-rocketing), and last but not least, the participation rate ticked up to 63.0%.
Meanwhile, we had the emerging markets wobble in late January, with massive currency deprecations in Argentina and Turkey reviving concerns of a more widespread crisis, driven primarily by the Fed's ongoing QE tapering.
All of the above conspired to force the yield on 10-year US T-Notes down from just over 3.0% at the turn of the year, to a low of 2.58% on 3rd February, as investors dashed for safe-haven cover.
Turning to Fed policy, just as Forward Guidance was so recently the darling of central bankers in Washington and London, it is now being swiftly consigned to the bin, as unemployment rates have plummeted uncomfortably quickly, and they now rest horribly close to the thresholds cited as a pre-condition before which discussion of interest rate rises would not even begin. We seem to have moved on to a somewhat more fuzzy world in which the Fed will try to guess how much is left of the famously nebulous output gap, to judge whether improving unemployment figures do intend presage a return of labour power and rapid wage growth.
As we stand, new Chair Yellen has made it clear that continuity will be the watch-word and that she feels the output gap is still considerable, implying a huge swathe of avoidable and unnecessary human misery. In support of this view, she would point to the employment-to-population ratio, which has improved negligibly since the recession, when it fell through the floor, as a good indicator of huge slack in the labour market. However, New York Fed researchers Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy recently published a paper highlighting the potential for the employment-to-population ratio to mislead us, unless we take account of 'baby-boomer' demographics,
"The E/P ratio is a misleading indicator for the degree of the labor market recovery," say Kapon and Tracy. "Adjusting for changing demographics has an important impact on the picture that emerges about the degree of the labor market recovery. The actual E/P ratio suggests that the labor market has made relatively no progress since the end of the recession in recovering from the 4.1 percentage point decline in this measure. In contrast, the gap between the demographically adjusted E/P ratio using our normalization and the actual E/P ratio is a much smaller 0.7 percentage points."
In other words, permanent drop-outs from the labour force, e.g. retirees, of course mean that the participation rate has fallen and therefore the fall in headline unemployment rates is 'for real' and has the potential to lead to an inflation problem quite quickly. The US economy also faces much less fiscal drag this year, with the expected change in cyclically adjusted budget balance being +0.5% in 2014, after +2.7% last year.
Turning to the markets, they already seem to be correcting for the weather effect. Treasury yields actually rose last week, even in the face of several weak-ish data releases. Emerging markets seem to be recovering and anyway damage is not expected to be contagious, due to improved structural state of many formerly weak countries, with massive FX reserves a common theme. Fed Fund futures are still priced well to the dovish side of the FOMC's December Summary of Economic Projections, (SEP), and don't forget the FOMC's membership changed in January, becoming significantly more hawkish. Taking all of this into account, although the current storms may well weigh upon February's statistics, Q2 growth could now hit 4% and US rates could move significantly higher along the curve, also taking the USD higher-especially against the Yen, as safe-haven flight undoubtedly reinforced January's bout of Yen strength.