Friday, March 31, 2017

A Strong Year for Corporate Bond Sales

The combination of strong demand and relatively low borrowing costs has been a boon for the bond market in 2017. U.S. companies have sold $406.1 billion of high-grade debt so far this year, a record for any first quarter going back to at least 1995, according to Dealogic.

This is the third consecutive first quarter where investment grade corporate issues have set a record high. Global issuance of high-grade bonds, on the other hand, is just short of record levels, totaling $843.6 billion through March 30, versus $890.5 billion for the same period last year, and $896.7 billion for the full first quarter of 2016.

Several American companies have issued huge bond offerings this year. The biggest deals include Microsoft's $17 billion sale, Broadcom Corp.’s $13.6 billion sale, and Verizon Communications $11 billion offering.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Smartest People Live Here

Here's no surprise: New Jersey is one of the most financially literate states in the country. That's according to personal finance site WalletHub, which analyzed 15 metrics including high school financial literacy grades and how many adults have emergency funds.

The site also looked at public high-school graduation rates and household spending habits, who was likely to have a “rainy-day fund,” and which states had the most unbanked households. The entire top ten:

1. New Hampshire
2. Minnesota
3. North Dakota
4. Maine
5. Virginia
6. Maryland
7. New Jersey
8. Illinois
9. Colorado
10. Montana

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Consumer Confidence in Bloom

The consumer confidence report for the month of March that came out yesterday was impressive on a lot of fronts.  Confidence levels are at their highest since 2000, comfortably above the highs we saw during the prior expansion from 2003 through 2007. That breaks what had been a trend of lower highs in confidence since the peak consumer confidence readings in the 1990s.

One very good sign was that consumers felt more optimistic about the jobs market. The percentage of consumers stating jobs are “plentiful” rose from 26.9 percent to 31.7 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” decreased from 19.9 percent to 19.5 percent.

If there was one concerning aspect of the report, though, it was among lower-income Americans. While higher income Americans saw their confidence levels surge to the highest levels since late 2000, confidence among consumers with incomes below $50,000 actually declined and has yet to exceed the peak levels we saw from the last cycle.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Shaky Earnings

Companies in the S&P 500 are expected to report first-quarter profits grew 9.1 percent, compared with the same quarter a year earlier, according to FactSet. If that holds up, it would be best quarter since the end of 2011 and a third straight quarter of earnings growth.

After five straight quarters of declining profits, a brightening earnings outlook comes at a welcome time. Still, there are reasons to be cautious. The biggest contributor to elevated first-quarter earnings forecasts is the energy sector, which is expected to earn $7.7 billion. A year ago, this group lost $1.5 billion. Exclude the group, and Factset forecasts S&P 500 earnings rose just 5.2 percent.

Also, while a rebound in oil prices is now lifting earnings, a resurgence in U.S. shale-oil production has investors increasingly worried. The price of crude oil has dropped 11 percent this month. Another prolonged slump in the price of oil could once again weigh on earnings.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Troubling Sign in Business Investment

Amid generally good economic news, there was one troubling number released recently. Durable goods orders rose 1.7 percent in February, but new orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft edged down by 1 percent. The move down might be evidence that businesses continue to hold back on investing heavily in their own businesses.

Overall, orders through the first two months of 2017 are up only 1.3 percent from a year ago. That is slower than January’s growth rate, which was 2.6 percent year-over-year. January was the first time the measure had grown on a year-over-year basis since October 2015, and only the second time since December 2014.

There has been definite improvement in recent months. Last summer, the year-over-year figures were running down 3 to 4 percent. But last month’s figures continue to point to a sluggish economy.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Moving In, Moving Out

Communities like ours, in the outer rings of metropolitan areas, are growing again. Last year saw the strongest evidence yet that Americans are returning to traditional patterns in where they move—from cities to suburbs and from North to South—after a recession-driven pause of nearly a decade.

Central counties of metropolitan areas grew 0.7 percent last year while outlying counties grew 1 percent, according to new Census Bureau population estimates. After two years of roughly comparable growth, this marked the first time since the recession that outer suburbs clearly outgrew central cities and inner suburbs. As recently as 2012, central counties grew 0.9 percent while outlying counties grew just 0.5 percent.

But we're losing population to Sun Belt cities that had seen migration from the North cut sharply since the housing-market collapse and recession of 2007-09. Las Vegas lost 5,000 more than it gained in 2011, but last year gained a net 28,000. Phoenix saw a gain of 4,000 in 2011 grow to 51,000 last year.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

More and More Millionaires

The number of millionaire households in America increased by 400,000 in 2016, reaching a new record of 10.8 million, according to a new study from the Spectrem Group. There are now 1.4 million households worth $5 million or more and 156,000 households worth $25 million or more.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of millionaire households has grown every year, adding a total of 4 million millionaire household since then. The stats mean that more than one out of every 10 households in America is worth $1 million or more.

Mass affluent households, those with a net worth between $100,000 and $1 million not including their primary residence, grew to 28.97 million last year. That's an increase of 500,000 over 2012, and of 3.77 million over the post-recession low of 25.2 million.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Down Day Ends the Streak

The S&P 500 ended its streak of 109 trading days without a 1 percent  decline yesterday, when it fell by 1.24 percent.  This was the first 1 percent drop for the index since October 11, 2016.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average also halted a streak of 109 days without a 1 percent decline, when it dropped by 1.1 percent. In the history of the indexes, there had only been 11 other prior streaks of 100-plus days without a 1 percent decline.

The S&P 500’s streak without a 1 percent down day was the longest since the one that ended May 18, 1995. The Dow’s was the longest since the one that ended September 20, 1993.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Happiest Place on Earth

Are Americans happy? According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, an annual ranking of 155 countries published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the United States ranks at No. 14 in the world, down a spot from last year.

The U.S. has never cracked the top 10 since the rankings were first published in 2012, when it came in at No. 11. The report involved polling of 1,000 residents per country by research organization Gallup.

At No. 1? Norway, up from No. 4 last year, followed by Denmark (last year’s No. 1), Iceland and Switzerland. These four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. “Their averages are so close that small changes can re-order the rankings from year to year,” the report said.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dueling GDP Estimates

What does the Fed think of the economy in the first quarter, which comes to a close in a couple of weeks? It depends on which Federal Reserve Bank you ask.

The Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and New York both publish trackers that gather and crunch data as it comes in, as part of their mandate to evaluate how the economy is faring. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker is projecting that first-quarter GDP growth will be particularly weak, at only 0.9 percent. The New York Fed’s Nowcast, by contrast, is forecasting a far stronger economy, with first-quarter growth at 2.8 percent as of Friday.

Early in January, the New York Fed’s estimate was just 1.5 percent, but it started rising sharply late in that month, first on strong manufacturing data, and then on particularly robust readings of business and consumer sentiment. We'll find out if they're right when the first estimate of GDP comes in on April 28.

Friday, March 17, 2017

More Hiring, More Quitting

Both hiring and quitting edged up in January, which can be taken as signs of optimism among both employers and workers. The rate of hiring rose to 3.7 percent in January from 3.6 percent in December, , according to new figures from the Labor Department.

The rate of quitting, which tends to rise when people are more confident about their prospects elsewhere, rose to 2.2 percent in January from 2.1 percent the prior month. January’s quits rate matches the recent peak set in December 2015.

The openings rate, defined as job openings as a share of total employment and available jobs, held at 3.7 percent last month. It has maintained roughly that rate since August 2016. The trend in openings since the summer could suggest there is less potential for hiring to accelerate, as employers added to jobs at the best the rate in 15 years during 2014 and 2015.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fed Hike

As expected, the Federal Reserve has raised its benchmark interest rate for the second time in three months and forecast two additional hikes this year. The move reflects a consistently solid U.S. economy and will likely mean higher rates on some consumer and business loans.

The Fed hiked its Fed funds rate by 0.25 percent, to between 0.75 and 1 percent. The policy statement cited the strengthening labor market and improving economy as reasons for the hike, but it noted the pace of expansion is just “moderate.”

The Fed’s “dot plot” still indicates three rate hikes this year and next, but it inched up in 2019, when it projected the median Fed funds rate could be 3 percent, instead of its 2.9 percent forecast last December. The Fed still projects the long run “neutral” rate of Fed funds is 3 percent.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Cost of the Snowstorm

The winter storm that’s blasting our area may end up being only a one-day affair, but it may be  severe enough to make a noticeable dent in  the economy. The storm is so severe, the disruptions from it will likely show up in the first-quarter report on the growth of the U.S. economy, research firm Oxford Economics predicted.

Oxford estimates that disruptions to business activity could shave up to 0.2 percentage points off of first quarter GDP. They note that their forecast for the quarter has been an already low 1.1 percent.

The Northeast region contributes roughly $3 trillion in annual output to the U.S. GDP, which equals about $12 billion daily. Assuming a loss of 10  to 20 percent of overall output on Tuesday, that would add up to a loss of about $2.4 billion worth of activity.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shaky Confidence for Retirement

Americans' confidence in their ability to retire comfortably isn't just shaky - it's dropping. Last year just 64 percent of workers were confident they’d be able to manage a comfortable retirement, while in 2015, 72 percent did. But that number is now getting worse.

According to the latest version of Capital One Investing’s Financial Freedom Survey, 2017 saw that confidence slip to just 62 percent. In addition, fewer than half of respondents even have a long-term financial plan. The top reasons for that lack of confidence are lack of knowledge and experience, cited by 51 percent, and distrust of the markets and the financial industry, cited by 49 percent.

People also aren’t exactly rushing to take actions even they believe they should be taking, with 39 percent of non-retired Americans believing they should contribute 15 percent or more of their income to retirement. But only 13 percent are doing so, and that’s down from 15 percent last year.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Small Business Hiring Accelerates

The hiring freeze at small businesses looks like it's finally thawing. The pickup in hiring was clear in the report last week from payroll provider ADP, which said its small business customers added 104,000 jobs in February, following a January gain of 62,000.

That compared to an average monthly increase of 33,000 from September through December. Hiring gains for this group for all of 2016 averaged 60,000.

That's not the only good news. A recent survey by the advocacy group the National Small Business Association done showed 43 percent of owners expected to hire in the next 12 months. That's up from 33 percent last summer.

Friday, March 10, 2017

February's Jobs Report

February was another strong month for the employment situation, with the economy adding 235,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate is now 4.7 percent.

Last month's increase in jobs followed a 238,000 rise in January. The first two months of this year represent the strongest back-to-back months for the job market since July.

Unseasonably warm weather appeared to be a factor. Construction jobs, which can fluctuate depending on the weather, rose by 58,000, the most since March 2007, and followed a 40,000 increase in January. Manufacturing payrolls gained 28,000, a three-year high.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Happy Birthday, Bull Market

On March 9, 2009, eight years ago today, the S&P 500 Index bottomed out at 667. Since then:

  • The S&P has risen more than 350 percent, closing at 2363 yesterday.
  • Over the past eight years, the index's average annual return was 14.9 percent.
  • The Dow Jones industrial average is up 200 percent.
  • Apple has risen nearly 1,000 percent.
  • Home Depot is up more than 600 percent, while American Express and Walt Disney Co. are both up by more than 500 percent.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Before the Bull Market

Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of the start of the bull market, one of the strongest and longest such markets in stock market history. Investors would do well to remember what preceded that market, though.

The decade between 1999 and 2009, in terms of stock returns, was one of the weakest on record. The average annual return for the S&P 500 index was less than 1 percent. After you adjust for inflation, you would have actually lost money being invested in the S&P for that entire period.

The decade between 1999 and 2009 included years of double-digit gains but years of double-digit losses as well. By contrast, in the past eight years, there hasn't been a single year where the S&P lost money.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Estimating a Woman's Retirement Needs

American women continue to face a difficult path to a secure retirement. According to a research report from the Transamerica Center on Retirement Studies, only 1 in 10 are “very confident” they will be able to retire comfortably.

More than half of women surveyed said they are just guessing at how much money they’ll need to feel secure once they retire. Women are likely to need more money than men thanks to a longer projected lifespan, and the greater likelihood to need more money to cover medical bills.

The report finds women estimate they’ll need to have saved a median amount of $500,000 to feel financially secure when they retire, which is the same estimate men come up with. However, 56 percent of women who have an estimate say they “guessed” at the amount, with just 8 percent having used a calculator or completed a worksheet to come up with their estimate.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Refinancing Continues to Grow

With interest rates still low, mortgage refinancing remained very strong in the fourth quarter of 2016. In fact, more people refinanced their mortgages in the final three months of the year than committed to purchase loans.

Lenders issued more than 883,000 mortgage refinance loans in the fourth quarter of last year. That's an increase of more than 20 percent from the previous year. Altogether, there were 3.36 million refinancings last year, up 4 percent from 2015.

Meanwhile, just 595,000 mortgage loans for home purchases were originated in the fourth quarter. That's down 12 percent from the year-earlier period.

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Record Recovery

The arrival of March this week means that the current economic expansion has now entered its 93rd month. According to the official national figures, the recession ended and the recovery started in June 2009.

The current expansion is the third-longest in U.S. history, since we've now surpassed the 92-month expansion of the 1980s. In records dating back to before the Civil War, the U.S. has only twice had longer spells of growth: the 1960s and 1990s.

Throughout U.S. history, the gap between one recession’s end and the next one’s beginning has averaged just under five years. If this economy makes it to next summer, it will be the second-longest in U.S. history. It will have to last until mid-2019 to become the longest on record.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Why Don't People Own Homes Like They Used To?

The homeownership rate—the percentage of households that own rather than rent the homes that they live in—has fallen sharply since mid-2005. In fact, in the second quarter of 2016 the homeownership rate fell to 62.9 percent, its lowest level since 1965.

A significant portion of the increase in the homeownership rate from the mid-1990s through 2005 occurred because of strictly demographic reasons. Over that period the population aged 45 and over grew at a 2.4 percent annually, while those aged 16 to 44 grew at only a 0.3 percent rate. Older people are more likely to establish their own household and to own the home they live in, so the end of that trend meant fewer people owning homes.

And of course, the subprime crisis started up in 2007, forcing many people out of their homes. The large volume of home foreclosures in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession has certainly played a role.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The "Revised" GDP Number

The second estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter came out yesterday, and it couldn't have been less "revised." Total growth reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in its second estimate was decreased by all of 2 basis points. to 1.86 percent versus 1.88 percent in the first estimate.

There were some interesting trends beneath that headline number, though. Consumption was more than the entirety of the growth in this estimate, adding 2.05 percent, up from 1.70 percent in the advance estimate. That's primarily thanks to upward revisions in motor vehicles and gasoline as well as food.

Upward revisions to health care services spending also added 0.48 percent to growth versus the first estimate of GDP. On the down side, investment’s contribution to total growth was revised down by 0.22 percent.