Monday, May 16, 2022

Will tomorrow’s real retail sales report forecast a recession, or just a continued slowdown?


 - by New Deal democrat

No economic data today of significance; but tomorrow one of my favorite economic indicators, retail sales, will be reported for April. Since real retail sales lead employment, and generally are a short leading indicator for the economy as a whole, I wanted to update on what I see as their importance right now.

Here are real retail sales per capita (red) vs. real aggregate payrolls per capita (blue), both normed to 100 as of last May (note: I chose May because of the stimulus fueled spending spree in March and April that abated by then):

As you can see, payrolls have continued to grow by about 10% since then, while real retail sales per capita have for all intents and purposes been flat for the 10 months since, up only 0.3% as of March.

Why is this important? Here is a look at the same two metrics going back 60 years measured YoY:

Two important relationships ought to jump out. First, while the relationship is noisy on a monthly basis, over the longer term real retail sales lead payrolls, usually on the order of about 6 months. Second, real retail sales being negative YoY for any sustained period of time is an excellent harbinger of recession. Not only have they turned negative YoY in advance of every recession in the past 50+ years, but on the few occasions where a recession did not follow a negative number that was sustained for more than a month or two - 1966, 1987, 1994, 2002 - there was a marked economic slowdown that was not far off from recession.

Now let’s take a look at the same numbers for the past 3 years:

Note that payrolls were up 20% YoY in April 2021, and real retail sales jumped 50%! Since the biggest previous advance was about 12% YoY, had I included this data in the long term chart above, everything else would have been squiggles.

Note also that real retail sales per capita were negative YoY in March. They will presumably remain negative in April, because they are being compared with the stimulus spending spree last April.  For purposes of a pre-recession marker, the real marker is whether they will be down compared with last May, after the spending spree. Since consumer prices increased 0.3% in April, retail sales must increase 0.3% just to keep pace. A decline of -0.4% or more would make them negative compared with last May.

Because my suite of long leading indicators has not indicated a recession this year, I am expecting real retail sales to escape such a negative reading. But not necessarily by much. At the moment, they are forecasting a marked slowdown in the economy continuing this year. We’ll get the update tomorrow.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Weekly Indicators for May 9 - 13 at Seeking Alpha


 - by New Deal democrat

My Weekly Indicators post is up at Seeking Alpha.

One measure of how the Russia-Ukraine war has been “normalized” globally, is that industrial commodity prices have declined sharply - on the order of 25% - in the past two weeks, taking back their entire sharp increase at the start of hostilities.

Meanwhile, the Treasury yield curve has “normalized” somewhat more in the past several weeks. Despite that, the majority of financial indicators outside of the yield curve are decidedly negative.

As usual, clicking over and reading will bring you up to the virtual moment on the economy, and reward me just a little bit financial for the effort I make putting the news together.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Coronavirus dashboard for May 13: the virus will gradually become less lethal - because you can only die once


 - by New Deal democrat

COVID-19 is still a pandemic, and is gradually going to transition to endemic. A year ago I thought that between nearly universal vaccinations and an increasing percentage of the population already infected, the virus would wane into a background nuisance by now.

No more.  I am now thoroughly convinced that there will be an unending series of variants that will create continuing waves of new infections and, increasingly importantly, RE-infections. The percent of the population fully vaccinated (not even counting boosters) has come to a screeching halt at 66%. And even in jurisdications with high percentages of vaccinated people, like Vermont, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island, new infections have continued to run rampant (although the death numbers have steeply declined with vaccinations). 

Rhode Island is particularly instructive, because 35% of the population had already had *confirmed* cases of COVID two months ago (which means that probably double that percentage, or 70%, had *actually* been infected), and 83% of the population was fully vaccinated. In other words, probably 95% or more of the population had either been vaccinated or previously infected. And yet, that was no protection at all against the BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 wave that began over a month ago.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the numbers.

BA.2.12.1 has gradually been becoming the dominant variant, per the CDC’s variant “nowcast” through last Saturday:

In about another month, BA.2.12.1 should be 90% or more of all infections.

BA.2.12.1 is already dominant in NY, NJ, and PR, constituting 66% of all cases:

BA.2.12.1 is also nearly half of all cases along the rest of the East Coast and, oddly, the northern Great Plains, but a much smaller percentage elsewhere, especially along the West Coast:

In the bellwether jurisdictions of NY, NJ, and PR, cases are still rising by 20%-30% a week:

To the extent there is good news, is that in most areas of Upstate New York, cases are flat or already declining. This is particularly true in the Central NY region, where BA.2.12.1 was first identified:

Cases tripled between March and April, but are down 30% since then. Even at peak, cases were only about 20% of their previous Omicron peak.

Nationwide cases have tripled since their bottom 5 weeks ago, but deaths have only started to rise in the past week:

Deaths will probably be near 1000/day in about a month.

The long term picture of deaths vs. infections shows that, with the exception of Delta, each successive wave has been *relatively* less lethal than the wave before it (thick line is deaths; thin line ins infections):

This probably shows us the longer-term evolution of the virus. It will gradually move from pandemic to endemic. This is not necessarily because the virus will become intrinsically less deadly. It is more likely going to be because over time (several years) an increasing percent of the population will finally get vaccinated, and repeated re-infections will give the population more inherent resistance. Meanwhile the virus will continue to evolve to become ever more transmissible, as those mutations most capable of successfully infecting the vaccinated and the previously infected population will reproduce more. Meanwhile, to be blunt, that portion of the population most susceptible to lethal outcomes, like the institutionalized elderly, will already have been killed by the virus, and they can only die once.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

New jobless claims rise slightly, but continuing claims make another 50+ year low


 - by New Deal democrat

Initial jobless claims rose 1,000 to 203,000, continuing above the recent 50+ year low of 166,000 set in March. The 4 week average also rose by 4,250 to 192,750, compared with the all-time low of 170,500 set five weeks ago. On the other hand, continuing claims declined -44,000 to 1,343,000, yet another new 50 year low (but still well above their 1968 all-time low of 988,000):

The graph above shows a slight trend of increased new layoffs, which may or may not  just be noise. In any event, the tightest market for keeping a job in half a century continues. With so many other data points weakening, this is probably the brightest spot in the entire economy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

With the Fed already having begun to “stomp on the brakes,” inflation is still running very hot


 - by New Deal democrat

As promised, here is my second post on the April CPI number.

The YoY advance in consumer prices, +8.3%, is down from last month’s 8.6%, which was the highest 12 month rate since 1981. As I suggested last month, “the spike in gas prices may be - to use a recently dreaded word - transitory,” since gas prices had declined 5% month over month at the time of last month’s report. In the April report, energy prices declined -2.7%, and since they are 8% of the total weighted, that was certainly helpful. So far this month they have been more or less steady.

There was also good news in that the price of used cars and trucks fell -0.4% in April, after declining -3.8% in March. They constitute another 4% of the weighting of the CPI. As a result, the price of used vehicles was “only” up 22.7% YoY, vs. 41.2% YoY in February (which was the highest YoY increase in 70 years):

As I noted last month, used vehicle prices are down because they have become unaffordable for enough people that sales of such vehicles has also turned down.

Now let’s focus on the housing component of CPI, which constitutes 32% of the total input. There, both rent, and the much larger CPI component of owner’s equivalent rent, which is how house prices are figured into inflation, rose 0.6% and 0.5% respectively, for the month, and are up 4.8% YoY, respectively. This is the highest YoY rate of housing inflation for either measure in over 30 years:

I continue to expect the housing component of inflation to worsen considerably. That’s because, as I first pointed out half a year ago, the major house price indexes - the FHFA index and the Case Shiller index - lead owners equivalent rent by roughly 12 to 24 months, particularly in major moves.

The below graph shows the YoY% change in both house price indexes in shades of blue, compared with the YoY% changes in the CPI measures of rent of primary residence, and owners’ equivalent rent in shades of red:

There have been 3 major pulses of house price increases in the last 25 years: in 1997-98, 2004-06, and 2020-present. In each case, after roughly a 12-24 month lag, both CPI rent measures surged as well. That’s because big surges in house prices make renting more attractive (or necessary for those on more limited budgets); this drives more demand for apartments, which drives rent increases.  Further, the current rise in house prices of nearly 20% YoY, is significantly worse than either of the previous two - and has been up almost 20% YoY for the last 8 months running. With CPI housing inflation already at a 20 year high, we can further record CPI housing increases as this year progresses.

As I have also pointed out before, before owners equivalent rent is fully passed through into CPI, total inflation has normally cooled, as shown in the graph below:

That is because, faced with surging inflation, the Fed has embarked on a series of rate hikes (shown in black above) that culminated before owners equivalent rent peaked. The economy buckled, recessions started, and total inflation subsided as a result, before owners equivalent rent had fully peaked.

Unfortunately, even after the record surge in house prices was in full swing over a year ago, the Fed stayed on the sidelines. Now, as both rents and owners’ equivalent rents surge as well, and the Fed has so far only increased rates by 0.75%. Last month I wrote that “now the Fed is almost certainly going to stomp on the brakes, with a hard landing to follow;” and I would say that last week’s 1/2 point increase, the first in 28 years, was just the beginning of that stomping.

Let me conclude this month’s installment by exactly restating my closing paragraph from last month’s installment, because it certainly is the object lesson for the Fed:

It’s too late for this cycle. But with three examples of surging house prices feeding through with a delay into the CPI in the past 25 years, in the future the Fed simply *must* pay attention to house prices as reflected in those indexes. Better a small tamping down of the economy early than a major sudden stop later.

Real wages unchanged, real aggregate payrolls rose slightly in April


 - by New Deal democrat

Consumer inflation for April was +0.3%, the lowest monthly advance since last August. The number was helped by a big decline in energy prices, down -2.7% for the month, and also by used cars, down -0.4% for the month. In this post I’ll report on the impact on wages. I’ll put up a separate post with more general comments later.

Since nominal nonsupervisory wages rose 0.4% in March,“real” wages rose less than 0.1% (rounded to 0.0%) in April:

On a YoY basis, real wages are still down -1.7%, slightly above March’s -1.8% reading:

This remains a terrible number historically. Under ordinary circumstances, this would absolutely be recessionary.

But these are not ordinary circumstances, as inflation was goosed in part by stimulus payments last spring. This will be a more “normal” comparison in a couple of months, as a comparison with the stimulus months fades. 

The better measures is real aggregate payrolls for nonsupervisory workers, i.e., the total of payrolls for the entire country, normalized for inflation. These are up 2.7% YoY, a slight increase from last month:

Real aggregate payrolls turning negative YoY is frequently something that happens shortly before recessions (and likely is a causative agent), although there are some false positives. 

A closer look, however, shows that real aggregate payrolls are only up +0.5% in the past 6 months, and flat for the last 3 months:

In other words, unless wage increases actually accelerate from here (unlikely), we really need inflation to stay down for the rest of this year. Otherwise, consumer spending (70% of the economy) is going to flag and likely contribute to an economic downturn. Not to mention being a bad thing for working families.