With another successful earnings season in the books, earnings news will move to the backburner for financial market observers. In the midst of this earnings vacuum, economic news moves to the forefront, as investors try to determine if the strong earnings will be sustainable via a healing economy. Or, if the economic support is beginning to deteriorate, perhaps earnings have peaked.
In addition, recall that the Federal Reserve is scrutinizing economic data points to find the appropriate time to ease up on the accelerator. So, earnings support and Fed policy have a keen interest in the economic progress of this country, namely in the job market. Recent weeks produced a deluge of data points that seem to show a country that is slowly but surely healing from the depths of the 2008 crisis. Here are a few of the data points:
GDP: Third quarter GDP was revised up to 3.6 percent. Much of the growth was due to swift inventory accumulation, which could set the fourth quarter up for lower numbers. However, 3.6 percent still represents the fastest growth since the first quarter 2012 figure of 3.7 percent.
ISM Numbers: The ISM non-manufacturing (service) index fell from 55.4 in October to 53.9 in November. However, remember that any reading above 50 represents expansion. The ISM’s manufacturing counterpart surged from 56.4 in October to 57.3 in November. In fact, the index has now registered above 55 for five consecutive months. In summary, both the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy seem to confirm a healing overall economy.
Jobs: Last week’s non-farm payroll report revealed an unemployment rate of 7.0 percent, with payrolls increasing by 203,000 for the month, while October’s job gain numbers were revised up to 200,000. Both months together represent the strongest back-to-back monthly payroll gain since February and March of this year.
Confidence: All of this adds up to increased consumer confidence, which was reflected in December’s University of Michigan consumer confidence report. December’s reading of 82.5 (up from 75.1 during the government shutdown healing month of November) is the highest level in five months.
What does this mean for investors? In the current environment, as noted above, better than expected economic growth raises the probability of Fed tightening while at the same time raising the probability that earnings expectations will be met, if not exceeded. Since QE3 began in September 2012, the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.1 percent to the current 7.0 percent, while the number of jobs has grown by an average of 188,000 per month, or 2.8 million in total. That sounds like a healing labor market that might not require full Fed support, as Ben Bernanke prepares for his probable last meeting as Fed chairman on Dec. 17-18. Where will investors focus if the Fed begins easing? The focus will undoubtedly continue to shift, but for now, the prospect of Fed tapering has not scared away equity investors.
–Sources include Standard & Poor’s, USA Today, Marketfield Asset Management, Reuters, Bloomberg and Capital Economics
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.