U.S. Equities closed the month of November near record highs. The gains have been fueled by optimism that U.S.-China trade issues will be resolved amicably. I remain skeptical of this. This can clearly be seen in the divergence of consumer confidence and CEO confidence. Consumers tend to be more near-term focused, while CEOs have to make plans for staffing, capital expenditures and investments going out a year or two. Clearly CEOs are concerned.
Also, while consumer confidence remains significantly higher than CEOs, “Consumer confidence declined for a fourth consecutive month, driven by a softening in consumers’ assessment of current business and employment conditions,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board.
One key economic indicators I follow is the Leading Economic Indicators (LEI). While month-to-month changes can be caused by “noise”, I watch the longer term trends. Here are notes on the most recent report for October 2019:
- “The US LEI declined for a third consecutive month, and its six-month growth rate turned negative for the first time since May 2016. The decline was driven by weaknesses in new orders for manufacturing, average weekly hours, and unemployment insurance claims,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, Senior Director of Economic Research at The Conference Board. “The major difference this month is the softening in the labor market, whereas conditions in manufacturing remain weak and show no signs of improvement yet. Taken together, the LEI suggests that the economy will end the year on a weak note, at just below 2 percent growth.”
The fact that the 6-month growth rate has turned negative is concerning to me.
All told, I feel the US economy is slowing but will likely plod along at about 2% annual growth. This is not the problem.
The problem is the financial markets, specifically US stocks, are reflecting a much better situation. The term you might here is “stocks are priced for perfection”, or “it’s a goldilocks market” meaning stock prices are reflecting positive outcomes to trade disputes, economic growth, monetary stimulus and consumer spending. How will the market react if any, or some, of these outcomes are not as positive?
For the last few months, I have been cautious and in a neutral position in portfolios. Through the end of November, that posture proved too conservative. However, stocks have declined by 2% over just the last three trading days, mostly because of new uncertainty around the trade situation. Just today, December 3rd, President Trump indicated he may wait until after the 2020 elections to push for a trade deal with China. December 15th is a key date. The US is set to impose new tariffs on China. Will that happen? The market has been betting it will not. I’m not so sure.
I continue to believe the upside potential is less than the downside risk, at the moment. As such, we will remain neutrally positioned with a cautious bias. I would rather miss out on a small upside move to avoid getting caught in a swift downside adjustment.
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December Calendar of Events (comments and additions for future months are always welcome)
- December is Universal Human Rights Day. Let’s pray that all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, or nationality can learn to treat others as we all wish to be treated.
December 10th Human Rights Day – I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society… it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. – Nelson Mandela
December 15th Healthcare open enrollment – for coverage starting Jan 1, 2020 – ENDS!
December 19th Christian’s birthday
December 21st Winter Solstice – The shortest day of the year and the start of winter
December 22nd Happy Hanukkah – May it also be a festival of love, happiness, success, and health in your world now and always.
December 25th Merry Christmas – have a wonderful holiday. Let’s all remember the true significance of this day – the birth of Christ.
Sources: The Conference Board, CNBC
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