Now that earnings season has essentially ended, the stock market needs a new muse. The next earnings season begins in early October. In between, analysts will tweak models and revise forecasts, but real data releases overpower estimate releases. In mid-September, the Fed will either reduce bond purchases or buy more time. President Obama will choose between the over-politicized Larry Summers, the over-dovish Janet Yellen or the over-qualified Don Kohn to succeed Ben Bernanke as the next Fed head. We will also soon revisit Washington’s favorite debate over the debt ceiling.
Each of these policy and geo-political decisions will undoubtedly stoke volatility. However, with U.S. markets trading at rich valuations, and bond markets poised for higher rates, the one thing that truly deserves marketplace attention is the quality and direction of the global economy. The markets have priced in economic and earnings acceleration. Does the economic environment justify this view?
With the drag of “the sequester” dissipating, the pathway forward for U.S. GDP growth rates should improve. The OECD now sees 3 percent-plus growth in the in 2014. The IMF sees 2.7 percent for 2014, a full percentage point higher than its 2013 forecast. Given that estimates for 2013 cluster around 2 percent, expectations are for a meaningful acceleration in 2014. The recent encouraging economic news has caught many economists by surprise. The Citigroup Economic Surprise Index, which tracks whether data beats or misses expectations, recently hit its highest level of the year.
With the ECB backstopping sovereign bond markets and governments reducing the austerity of their austerity plans, the European economy has received some breathing room. After being in recession for the last 18 months, Europe appears to be transitioning to growth. The OECD expects growth of 1.1 percent for in 2014 in the Eurozone, compared with a 0.6 percent decline in 2013. The IMF predicts just under 1 percent growth. The European version of the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index has surged into positive territory since mid-July.
Skepticism over China’s ability to transition from an investment-led economy to a consumption-led economy has clouded the economic view of the entire region. However, recent releases out of China depict an economic bounce. Imports, exports, retail sales and factory production have risen strongly. China now appears safely on course to grow 7.5 percent in 2013, which will support the region. The Asian version of the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index has likewise headed higher.
The Global Mosaic
According to JP Morgan, global business activity hit a 16-month high in July. Whether the uptick can be traced to the delayed impact of quantitative easing, reduction in sovereign austerity programs, a restocking of lean inventories or pent up consumer demand is irrelevant. The U.S. and Europe have upshifted and Asia has bounced. Given that all of our economies are interdependent, a global pickup in business activity should reinforce regional pick-ups as well. For now the direction of the stock market seems aligned with the direction of the global economy.
David Waddell, who is regularly featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Forbes, as well as on Fox Business News and CNBC, is president and CEO of Memphis-based Waddell & Associates.