Stocks are back at all-time highs.
After spending about a month trading just off record levels, the S&P 500 powered back to an all-time high on Thursday and fractionally improved on this to end the week, closing at 2,122.73 on Friday.
Meanwhile, economic data has continued to disappoint, with readings on retail sales in April and consumer confidence in May both disappointing this week, putting the spring economic recovery in doubt.
The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker, which was spot-on in predicting the initial reading 0.2% growth reading for first quarter GDP, now forecasts that the economy is on pace to grow just 0.7% in the second quarter.
Here’s your Monday Scouting Report:
The spring economic recovery is in doubt. “Our forecast for GDP growth continues to slide,” write Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists Michelle Meyer and Alex Lin. “We are now tracking -1.2% for 1Q and 2.5% for 2Q, implying 0.7% growth in the first half of the year. This is not the bounce we were hoping for.”
This past week, data on retail sales and consumer confidence disappointed, leading some in the market to throw the word “recession” out there. The general softness in the economy has largely been attributed to the decline in oil prices and the rise of the US dollar, pressuring import and other prices as well as investment from the oil and gas industry.
But the surprising absence so far this year has been the consumer.
“The consumer was supposed to be the bright spot this year given the tailwinds of lower gasoline prices, healthier job growth, continued wealth gains and improving sentiment,” Meyer and Lin write. “We have not yet seen this strength materialise, as core control retail sales have been essentially flat since last November.”
Meyer and Lin add: “Why the weakness? With a windfall of cash from lower gasoline prices, consumers are either being cautious, choosing to add a large portion to savings, or there is a longer lag to spending than we had expected. It could also be that consumers have learned from the crisis and have become more conservative about utilising their wealth gains and managing debt.”
And writing in The New York Times this weekend, economist Tyler Cowen asks if the repeated economic disappointments we’ve seen in the last several years are part of a larger economic reorientation that the US could be facing for years to come.
- National Association of Homebuilders Housing Market Index (Mon): Kicking off a busy week of housing data will be the NAHB’s Housing Market Index, which rose to 56 in April from a reading of 52 in March. In the April release, NAHB chief economist David Crowe said, “This uptick shows builders are feeling optimistic that the housing market will continue to strengthen throughout 2015.” Expectations are for an improvement in May’s reading to 57.
- Housing Starts and Building Permits (Tues): After a deep plunge in February, housing starts rose 2% in March, and expectations are for Tuesday’s report to show a 9.9% increase in starts during the first month of the second quarter. “We expect housing starts once again breached the psychologically important 1 million unit mark in April,” Wells Fargo wrote in a note to clients. Expectations are for starts to rise to an annualized pace of 1.018 million, according to estimates from Bloomberg. Building permits are expected to rise 2.2% in April to an annualized pace of 1.065 million.
- Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s April 28-29 Meeting (Wed): “The Fed is in a bind,” write economists at BNP Paribas. “On the one hand, the broad strokes of the medium-term outlook have not changed and, on this basis, moving rates away from the zero lower bound may soon be justified. On the other hand, numerous shocks have left the Fed more uncertain and possibly less confident in the growth outlook.” BNP expects the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee’s latest meeting will reveal a “lengthy discussion” about the economic softness in the first quarter. On the labour front, BNP expects the discussion will be “succinct, but lacking enthusiasm.” As for when the Fed might be compelled to raise rates, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s economics team writes: “Only a few members are likely to explicitly rule out a June hike in the April minutes, but data dependence should lead the Committee to be less certain of a near-term rate hike than at the March meeting. In light of recent Fed rhetoric, we do expect the minutes to reveal that the threshold for the first rate hike is relatively low.”
- Initial Jobless Claims (Thurs): Initial jobless claims are expected to rise to 270,000 from 264,000 the prior week. Last Thursday’s report, however, revealed that the four-week moving average of initial jobless claims declined to the lowest level since April 2000. “The lower trend indicates that businesses have become more committed to their workers, which is consistent with a tightening labour market,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s economics team wrote.
- Markit Economics Flash PMI (Thurs): Markit’s initial reading on manufacturing activity in May is expected to show an uptick from April’s final reading. Expectations are for the measure to come in at 54.5, up from 54.1 at the end of April. In April’s final reading, Chris Williamson at Markit Economics said, “With manufacturing output growth slowing to the weakest seen so far this year and exports falling for the first time since November, the survey results raise worries that the dollar’s appreciation is hurting the economy.” In the last month, the dollar index has weakened by about 8%.
- Philadelphia Federal Reserve Manufacturing Index (Thurs): The Philly Fed manufacturing index is expected to rise to 8 from a reading of 7.5 in April. In a note, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s economics team wrote, “The special questions in the last report noted that the stronger dollar only has a slightly negative impact on businesses, broadly speaking. However, domestic demand has also remained sluggish, limiting production, and we believe it is likely that we see more of the same in May.”
- Existing Home Sales (Thurs): Existing home sales rose 6.1% in March to an annualized rate of 5.2 million, and Thursday’s number is expected to show a further improvement of 1% to a pace of 5.24 million in April. Pending home sales, which represent contracts signed but not yet closed, have risen in each of the last 3 months. “Supply constraints pose a threat to a strong spring home buying season, although inventories ticked up in March,” write economists at Wells Fargo. “Despite this concern, we expect existing home sales posted a slight gain in April, rising to a 5.23 million seasonally adjusted annual rate.”
- Consumer Price Index (Fri): Inflation is expected to have remained muted in April. The consumer price index is expected to show a 0.1% increase month-on-month in April, while headline inflation is set to decline 0.2% from the prior year. “Core” inflation, which excludes more volatile items like food and energy, is expected to rise 0.2% on monthly basis in April, and 1.7% over the prior year. “Both important and producer prices were weak for April, suggesting that low inflation remains well entrenched,” wrote Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s economics team.
The only thing left to earn in stocks may be the dividend.
Writing in a note to clients over the weekend, David Kostin, chief US equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, said, “With the S&P 500 trading at an all-time high, we expect its 2% dividend yield will be the sole contributor to total return during the next 12 months. The market will rise to 2150 by mid-year but fade after the Fed raises interest rates in September for the first time in nine years. Our year-end forecast is 2100 and our 12-month target equals 2125.”
Kostin notes that 165 S&P 500 firms have raised dividends so far this year, with Apple and Exxon serving as major contributors to this growth.
“The historical relationship between the cyclically-adjusted P/E multiple (currently 23.4x) and forward equity returns suggest the prospective 10- year annualized total return for the S&P 500 will be 5%. Dividend levels implied by the swap market suggest that 46% of the total return during the next ten years will be derived from dividends, and 54% from price gain.”
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