Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Keeping Consumer Confidence Up

Consumer confidence continues to rise, with the latest report from the Conference Board showing that February's reading reached a 12-month high. That benchmark index shot up from 61.5 in January to 70.3 in February, well higher than the 63 predicted by Bloomberg News' panel of economists.

The one piece of economic data that has the greatest ability to dampen consumer confidence in the coming months is the price of oil. Over the past two months, the price of gasoline has climbed by an average of 47 cents a gallon nationwide. Here in New Jersey, the average cost of a gallon of gas is now $3.58, up from $3.35 a month ago.

But there was good news on that front yesterday. The price of oil futures dipped by 1.9 percent yesterday, and crude oil supplies are now believed to be at a five-month high. An oil shock could be devastating to this economy, but now it looks as if we might be able to avoid one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The High-Yield Market

We spoke last week about how bond funds have strongly outpaced stock funds in their net inflows recently. So far, in 2012, more than $20 billion has flowed into bond funds of various types, while $4.8 billion has gone into stock funds.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, one of the drivers behind the growth in bond funds has been the high-yield variety, or what used to be known as junk bonds. High-yield-bond funds have actually drawn more money this year - $11.8 billion - than investment-grade bond funds, which have drawn only $9.9 billion.

The surprising thing about this is that high-yield bonds don't have the greatest track record lately. In 2011, investment-grade bonds showed a higher return than junk bonds, by a margin of 8.1 percent to just 4.98 percent for junk. This year, the return on high-yield bonds has even dropped a bit further, to 4.74 percent, while the S&P 500 is now up 8.6 percent for 2012.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Meaning of Slowing Growth

As expected, the growth in corporate profits has begun to slow. According to S&P Capital IQ, an information research service, first-quarter 2012 profits are expected to be only about 1 percent above where they were in the same quarter of 2011. For the year as a whole, earnings for the S&P 500 are expected to grow about 6 percent, while they grew 16 percent in 2011.

Of course, it's harder to show growth from a higher baseline, which means a relative lack of growth in profits may not necessarily result in bad news for the stock market. The institutional research firm the Leuthold Group found that of the 16 best years for stocks going back to 1938, they were evenly split between years with growth in corporate earnings and years with declines in corporate earnings. Moreover, in the 16 worst years for stocks, corporate profits rose in 13 of those years.

The bottom line is, corporate profits are expected to be strong in 2012, even stronger than they were in 2011. But it's hard to follow explosive growth with even more explosive growth.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Slowdown in Stock Funds

It's been a pretty good year for the stock market so far, which means you might expect equity mutual funds to be hauling in a lot of cash. But that hasn't been the case: During the second week of February, stock funds took in a total of $1.04 billion, down sharply from the $3.64 billion of the week before. And even that total overstates the case somewhat. Foreign stock funds took in $1.01 billion, while domestic stock funds gained only $35 million.

Meanwhile, bond funds continue to be hugely popular. For that second week of February, they took in $8.2 billion - their biggest week this year. That total was split between $6.46 billion that went into taxable bond funds and $1.73 in municipal bond funds.

Interestingly enough, hybrid funds - those that invest in a combination of equities and fixed-income instruments - continue to show real strength. They added $2.66 billion in new investments over that second week of February. For both that week and for the month as a whole, those hybrid funds have taken in more than conventional stock funds have.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Americans' Security Grows

If there's one thing that characterized the economic downturn of 2008-2009, it was fear: fear that we'd lost our retirement savings, fear that we would lose our jobs, fear that America's economic strength was eroding and would never return. But according to a new survey from Country Financial, that fear is fading quickly. Americans' economic security has risen for three straight months, and

The biggest factors:

* 50 percent of Americans said they were able to set aside money for savings, the highest that figure has been in three years.

* 58 percent say they are confident in their ability to retire comfortably.

* 80 percent said they're confident in their ability to pay their debts, the highest such number since October 2008.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dow 13,000! ... or Not

The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed the 13,000 barrier yesterday, leading to an outburst of cheers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow hadn't closed above 13,000 since May 19, 2008, nearly four years ago. (And it still hasn't, since it finished yesterday by slipping back down to 12,965.)

In other words, over that period of time, the stock market has gone precisely nowhere. And that 13,000 barrier is not even particularly close to the index's peak. The Dow reached its highest-ever point on October 9, 2007, when it closed at 14,164. We're still a good way from reaching that barrier.

But there's another important barrier that we are approaching. The Dow reached bottom on March 9, 2009, when it closed at 6547. It needs to reach 13,094 to have returned 100 percent since that ignominious point. We could arrive at that milestone sometime this week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Volatility's End, or Beginning?

There's no doubt that the stock market has been an exceptionally volatile place over the past few years. How volatile? From 2008 to 2011, there were 100 days in which the S&P 500 index lost 2 percent of its value or more. By contrast, in the 34 years between 1952 and 1986, there were only 83 such days.

Here's another one: There were 19 days between July 27 and December 8 of last year when the S&P had one of those 2 percent drops. That's more days of big losses in less than half a year than there were for the entire period from 1991 to 1997, or from 1975 to 1981.

Those stats were compiled by Conor Sen over at the Minyanville web site. Sen thinks the lesson is that our recently volatility is an outlier, and that we're likely to return to a normal, calm stock market over the next few decades. Of course, we may also be seeing that volatility is the new normal, and we'll never again see the orderliness that characterized the market for the second half of the 20th century. At this point, it's anyone's guess.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Earnings Season: The Sector Scorecard

As earnings season draws to a close, American corporations are at right about their historical average of beating Wall Street's earnings estimates. So far, we've seen 60.2 percent of companies reporting that beat the consensus, 11.1 percent that met expectations, and just 28.7 percent that feel short of their expected earnings, according to data compiled by Standard & Poor's.

S&P also breaks down this data by sector, so we can see which areas of the economy are outperforming expectations, and which are coming up short. Lead in the pack so far, by a wide margin, is the information technology sector, which has seen 42 issues beat expectations and only eight miss. Not far behind are the health care and industrial sectors.

Which areas have been the trailers in this category? No sector has had more losers than winners, but the materials sector has had 13 outperformers and 9 disappointments, and the financials sector has had 35 companies beat expectations and 28 fall short.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Income and Angst

Does thinking about how much money you make fill you with anxiety? Many of us have had those feelings - we're not making enough, or we are making enough but we're not sure it will last.

Two researchers from the University of Toronto recently quantified that effect by asking subjects listen to "The Flower Duet" from the opera Lakme. Some of the subjects were asked to figure their income while listening to the piece, while others did a meaningless mathematical calculation. The people who weren't forced to think about their income enjoyed the music at a rate of 70 on a scale of 100; those figuring their income enjoyed it at a rate of 63 out of 100.

On the other hand, the social scientists found that people who were getting paid for the task enjoyed it more than those who weren't. Some of the subjects were paid a small amount for listening to "The Flower Duet," while others weren't. Those who got paid reported a greater enjoyment of the piece. So even if your paycheck is causing you angst, it's making the work you do slightly more palatable.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Factories Come Back Strong

Things continue to look bright here in the Northeast, especially the industrial part of the area. The New York branch of the Federal Reserve - which covers New York, northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut - released its general economic index for February yesterday, and the figure far exceeded expectations. The figure is at 19.5, after sitting at 13.5 in January. In Bloomberg's survey of 56 economists, all asked to predict the number, not a single one had it that high.

Manufacturing is helping drive those numbers upward. The Fed announced that manufacturing grew at the fastest rate in the New York region than it had at any time since June 2010. Nationwide, factory output grew the most in December and January than it had in any two-month stretch since the recession was coming to an end, in July and August 2009.

Manufacturing isn't always that visible in the New York metro area, but it accounts for about 6 percent of the economic activity in the New York Fed's region. Nationally, manufacturing accounts for 12 percent of America's economy.

Who Is the World's Biggest Economic Power?

What nation dominates the world economically? If you ask Americans, the answer you're likely to get, by a surprisingly wide margin, is China. According to a Gallup poll conducted last week, 53 percent of all respondents described China as the leading economic power in the world today, with only 33 percent naming the U.S. Trailing far behind was Japan, named by 7 percent, followed by the European Union (3 percent) and India (2 percent).

Those numbers are largely unchanged from last year, but as recently as 2009, the same survey found China and the U.S. nearly dead-even, at 39 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Back in 2000, Japan actually finished ahead of China in this survey.

It's worth pointing out that, by most measures, the United States is still the leading economic power in the world. The CIA's World Factbook estimates America's 2011 GDP at just over $15 trillion, and China's at $11.3 trillion. Per capita, the difference is even wider, with China's GDP at $8,400, nowhere near the U.S. rate of $48,100 per person.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The White House Forecasts the Economy

As part of the budget released by the Obama Administration yesterday's, the president's staff also released a set of macroeconomic forecasts underpinning their budget projections. Some of the highlights:

* The White House predicts that GDP will grow 2.7 percent in 2012. That's up slightly from the 2.6 percent forecast issued last September. The administration also sees 3 percent growth in 2013, moving up to 3.6 percent in 2015 and 4.1 percent in 2016.

* The yield on ten-year Treasury notes - currently just under 2 percent - is expected to inch upward to 2.8 percent by the end of this year, 3.5 percent in 2013, and 3.9 percent in 2014.

* The consumer price index is predicted to go up to 2.2 percent this year, before settling at 1.9 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Signs of Optimism

There's been a lot of renewed optimism about America's economy and stock markets going around lately. A new survey of financial advisors around the country shows that such bullishness is growing, even in recent weeks. In a survey that talked to more than 100 advisors, the majority of which manage more than $50 million in assets, around 90 percent said they expect the S&P 500 to show a positive gain on the year.

That number is up 18 percentage points from when a similar survey was conducted in mid-January. Part of that, of course, reflects the fact that the S&P 500 is already up 6.8 percent on the year, and would require a downturn to finish the year in negative territory. But part of it is also confidence surrounding the growing signs of strength of the economy.

In fact, the majority of advisors now think that the S&P isn't just headed for positive territory but for solid growth in 2012. Roughly 63 percent of those surveyed expect the index to gain 5 percent or more this year.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Bogus Warning from the IRS

There's an email going around, purporting to be from the IRS, informing citizens that they have incurred a penalty because they didn't file their tax return before January 30th of this year. Couched in fairly official-sounding language, the notice threatens a fee of $10,000 if forms are filed late.

As phishing schemes go, this is a fairly lame one. Everyone knows that the IRS deadline is April 15th, and that January 30th has nothing to do with the taxpaying year. (Actually, this year the deadline is April 17th, due to weekends and holidays.) It's possible that some recipients will become confused and think that last year's return somehow didn't reach its proper destination by January 30th of this year, but that's not relevant either.

More to the point, the IRS is very clear about the fact that it does not initiate contact with taxpayers via email. It makes no difference if it's February 10th or April 15th: You will not get any legitimate email from the IRS. So if you do see something like that in your in-box, feel free to delete it. The sender is up to no good.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stocks on the Rebound

Which stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 has returned the most so far in 2012? It's Netflix, the same company that was so beaten down last year after the disastrous and quickly rescinded announcement that it was splitting itself into two companies. After losing 74 percent of its value in the last six months of 2011, Netflix is up 80 percent so far in 2012.

There have been a lot of stories like that in the early part of this year. Netflix was the second-biggest loser among the S&P 500 stocks in the second half of 2011, trailing only the renewable-energy company First Solar. Like Netflix, First Solar has rebounded strong in 2012, returning 36 percent so far.

Other stocks in that same category: Sears Holdings lost 56 percent of its value in the second half of 2011, but is up 54 percent in 2012. Bank of America lost 50 percent of its value in the second half of 2011, but is up 46 percent so far in 2012. Truly, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Consumer Credit Explodes

Here's another sign that the economy is expanding, maybe even much faster than anticipated: The Federal Reserve announced yesterday that consumer credit expanded by $19 billion in December, as Americans once again felt comfortable borrowing money. To show what a surprise that is, the consensus of economists polled by Bloomberg before the figure was announced expected a rise of just $7 billion.

The December gain followed an even bigger increase in consumer credit in November, when the figure rose by more than $20 billion. Put together, November and December represented the largest two-month increase in new credit since October and November of 2001.

Revolving debt, mostly from credit cards, grew by $2.76 billion, which is actually down slightly from November. The real driver was non-revolving debt, which includes auto and education loans. The December increase in that category of $16.6 billion was the biggest such monthly gain in that category since November 2001.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Are Corporate Profits Slowing?

Corporate earnings have been on a roll for nearly three years now, but there are signs that the string of good fortune may be coming to an end. The profit margin for the S&P 500 companies, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, dropped from 8.95 percent in the second quarter of 2011 to 8.23 percent so far for companies that have reported profits for the fourth quarter. That's the biggest drop we've seen since the onset of the financial crisis.

We're also seeing fewer companies meet their earnings estimates. As you probably know, more than half of all corporations exceed the consensus estimates that Wall Street analysts issue for their earnings report. This year, 60 percent of the S&P 500 firms are beating the analysts' projections - which may seem like a lot, but it's the lowest that number has been since 2008.

That's not to deny that we've come a long way since the financial crisis. The S&P 500 is on track to earn $24.20 a share this quarter; back in the fourth quarter of 2008, it bottomed out at $4.42 a share.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Facebook's Future

Facebook announced this week that it intends to have an initial public offering later this spring - one that has already been acclaimed as the richest IPO in history. The company's value is expected to be around the $100 billion mark, although it will be raising only around $5 billion in the IPO. According to the papers filed with the SEC, Facebook made a cool $1 billion in profits last year.

But will this highly anticipated IPO be a long-term hit with investors? That's still up in the air. The average IPO between 1980 and 2009 saw an 18 percent jump on its first day - but gained only 21 percent over the following three years. That's not even enough to beat the overall average market return.

Facebook's hope is that it turns out to be the next Google - an Internet highflyer that didn't crash and burn, but rather settled in for the long haul. On the day of its IPO in 2004, Google's stock got the customary first-day 18 percent pop - then gained more than 400 percent over the next three years.

Friday, February 3, 2012

2012 Starts With a Bang

The jobs numbers released this morning show that 2012 has gotten off with a bang: The economy added 243,000 jobs in January, the most for any month in almost a year. The unemployment rate dropped from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent; that's the lowest that figure has been since February 2009. The private sector added 257,00 jobs in January.

The employment categories showing the biggest gains were professional and business services, which added 70,000 jobs; manufacturing, which added 50,000 jobs; and hospitality, which added 44,000. The hospitality sector, driven by what the government calls "food service and drinking places," has added 487,000 jobs to the economy over the past year.

The economy has now added at least 200,000 jobs in back-to-back months, and at least 100,000 jobs in five straight months. It's probably premature to say we're in full recovery, since we've been here before: The economy added more than 200,000 jobs in each of the three months from February to April of last year, before faltering over the summer. But we're certainly moving in the right direction.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Coming Decade

It's often said that no one really knows where the stock market is going at any given time. So it seems like a fool's errand to try to predict the market for the next ten years. But the mutual fund giant Vanguard is attempting to do so anyway. Here are some aspects of their decade-long forecast, just out this week:

* Global stock markets are projected to return between 6 and 9 percent annually, slightly below the long-term historical average of 9.8 percent. Vanguard sees little difference in long-term returns between domestic stocks and foreign ones.

* The taxable U.S. bond market is forecast to return somewhere between 1.5 and 2 percent per year.

* Inflation will remain right around where it is today, in the 2 to 3 percent range.

* The American economy is projected to grow at 2 to 3 percent annually, again right about where it is today.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Property Taxes in New Jersey

In case you missed the news, it came out this week that New Jersey holds a rather unenviable distinction: We've got the highest property taxes in the nation, again this year. After a 4.1 percent hike in real estate taxes, the average property-tax bill in the Garden State rose by 2.4 percent in 2011. The end result: the final average bill was $7,519 in 2011. That's up 20 percent from 2009.

The good news is that the 2.4 percent average increase was the smallest that figure has been in over a decade. The effective property-tax rate was rising at around 7 percent per year from 2004 to 2006.

It's been a long ten years for taxpayers. Since 2001, overall, property taxes have increased by a stunning 66 percent in New Jersey. The average Garden Stater's property-tax bill in 2001 was $4,661. That probably felt like a lot back then, but it seems pretty enviable now.