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Slow progress, but not a recession, and that's bullish

When analyzing incoming economic data, it is important to view it from the perspective of the market's expectations. In my view, the extremely low level of Treasury yields (and the same goes for sovereign yields in most developed countries) is a strong sign that the market's growth expectations are dismal at best, and downright dreadful at worst. Similarly, price/earnings multiples on the S&P 500 of 13.4 and forward multiples of 12.2, at a time when corporate profits are at all-time highs, both in nominal terms and relative to GDP, can only mean that the market is expecting a significant decline in future earnings, which in turn is likely only if the economy is on the verge of another recession. Moreover, when there are $6.3 trillion of retail savings deposits earning almost zero at a time when earnings yields on equities are 7.5%, one is forced to conclude that a significant portion of the population is still in the grips of fear. In short, both the bond and stock markets are priced to the expectation of an imminent recession that could prove substantial.

With that said, today's economic releases reflect an economy that is improving, but only slowly. Is that something to worry about? No, because even a slow-growing economy is much better than what the market is expecting. In that light, today's news is a reason to be bullish.

The level of weekly unemployment claims has been choppy of late, but shows no sign of any deterioration in the economy. As the above chart suggests, the recent correction in equity prices is just that, a correction; the market was worried that the rise in claims in early April was a harbinger of another recession, but as it turns out it was most likely just an artifact of seasonal adjustment problems. Non-adjusted claims have been low and flat for the past several months, and last week's number was down 13% from a year ago, so on balance claims are still pointing to a slowly improving labor market. In the absence of any actual deterioration, stocks are likely to turn back up.

The number of people receiving unemployment insurance continues to decline, and is down 17% from a year ago. This is a positive indicator, since it means that those who are still looking for jobs have a greater incentive to find and accept job offers. And of course, it also reflects the fact that the ranks of the employed continue to expand, albeit relatively slowly.

New orders for capital goods, a proxy for business investment, have shown almost no growth since last summer. This is disappointing, since it would be much better to see continued increases. But it is not a sign of recession, and at worst it simply reflects what might be termed a economic "soft patch."

Swap spreads are good indicators of systemic risk, and they can also be good leading indicators of overall economic conditions. In the chart above we see that spreads in the Eurozone are quite elevated, and that makes sense given the ongoing difficulties with sovereign default risk. U.S. spreads have inched higher, but are still well within the range of "normal." Europe is having problems, but the U.S. has so far been unaffected, even though the market continues to worry about contagion risk.

As this chart of credit default swap spreads shows, the market is still quite worried about the risk of corporate default risk. Spreads today are at levels that we saw at the beginning of the last recession, and this is a clear sign that the market is priced to a recession, even though we have yet to see any signs of a downturn.

As a reminder, the chart above shows the trailing PE ratio of the S&P 500. At 13.4 today, it is approximately equal to what it was at the end of 2008, when the market fully expected a multi-year global recession/depression and years of deflation.

And as another reminder, this chart shows after-tax corporate profits as a % of GDP. We've never seen anything close to this good. The market's current PE ratio can only imply the expectation that profits are going to collapse, and that would only occur if the economy lurches into another recession.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that corporate profits are likely to exhibit mean-reverting behavior relative to GDP, and so today's very high level almost guarantees that profits are going to significantly underperform in the years to come—and thus the market is correct in assigning a very low multiple to current earnings. My rebuttal comes in the chart above, which shows that as a % of world GDP, corporate profits today are not unusually high at all. The globalization of most large corporations has brought significant advantages to U.S. business. Firms that can address a significantly larger global market can expect to earn profits that far exceed what was possible when U.S. firms were limited to just the U.S. market. Think Apple, which appears to have doubled its share of the booming Chinese smartphone market in just the past quarter.

The U.S. news may not be very exciting these days, but it is far better than the market's expectations. Thus I think it pays to remain bullish, even in the face of the "fiscal cliff" that is approaching at year end. The world is rapidly learning that lots of government spending does little or nothing to boost an economy, and that less government intrusion in the economy is much better for growth than boosting taxes. (See my previous post for more on this.) I think it will be very difficult for anyone in Congress to argue convincingly for allowing a big increase in tax burdens to occur starting January 1st. And I don't see a constituency in favor of ramping up government spending either. I note that Congressional gridlock has already resulted in a significant decline in the federal budget deficit as a % of GDP in recent years (from 10.4% to 7.4%), and a welcome decline in federal spending as a % of GDP (from 25.3% to 22.7%).

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