Weighing the Week Ahead: Energy Prices, Politics, and Jobs

There are many economic and political cross-currents.  This leads to a host of plausible-sounding opinions and plenty of confusion!

Last week I highlighted the energy price concern.  This week I try to look at each of the major market worries in an objective fashion.  As usual, I will review the data and also look ahead.  I try to take both a trading and an investment perspective.

Background on “Weighing the Week Ahead”

There are many good services that do a complete list of every event for the upcoming week, so that is not my mission.  Instead, I try to single out what will be most important in the coming week.  If I am correct, my theme for the week is what we will be watching on TV and reading in the mainstream media.  It is a focus on what I think is important for my trading and client portfolios.

In most of my articles I build a careful case for each point.  My purpose here is different.  This weekly piece emphasizes my opinions about what is really important and how to put the news in context.  I have had great success with my approach, but some will disagree.  That is what makes a market!

Last Week’s Data

There was some good news last week, but the spike in energy prices was the big story.

The Good

Most major economic indicators remain in positive territory.  There is growing recognition that the economic rally now has a self-sustaining character.

  • Economic growth is still improving.  The ECRI Weekly Leading Index moved higher.  The growth index reached another fresh peak, 6.1%, the highest since May, 2010.  This is a signal of solid growth for as far ahead as they are willing to forecast.
  • Risk as measured by the St. Louis Fed Stress Index, stayed in negative territory.  This measure tracks a lot of market data in the eighteen inputs.  It is not a poll, nor opinions, nor a collection of anecdotes.  We should all pay attention to some real data.  The value moved to -.017, slightly higher than the -.024 from last week.  For more interpretation, the St. Louis Fed published a short paper with a very nice chart that helps to interpret this index.  The chart does not reflect the recent continued decline in stress, but it identifies the dates for important recent events.  The paper also has a longer version of the chart, illustrating past stress periods.  I am not going to run the chart each week, but I strongly recommend that readers look at the paper.  In the 2008 decline there was plenty of warning from this index — no sign right now.  The report cites data as of 2/18, reported on 2/24.  I would expect the index to move a little higher next week.
  • Michigan Consumer Sentiment The Michigan index hit a surprising 77.5.  This is still not in strong territory, but it is moving the right way.
  • Initial Jobless Claims are improving, below 400K again and the lowest 4-week moving average since 2008.

The Bad

The bad news, once again, included housing data, but that is not the whole story.

  • Case-Shiller Sales and Pricing Weak.  Calculated Risk reports:  “The Case-Shiller house price index showed house prices are still falling – for the sixth consecutive month – and more house price declines are expected with the high levels of inventory and a high percentage of distressed sales. Eleven of the twenty Case-Shiller cities are now at new post-bubble lows…”
  • Energy prices spiked higher as investors wondered whether popular uprisings in Egypt and Libya would spread to other Middle East countries.

The Ugly

The growth and spread of democracy can be messy and disruptive.  To call it “ugly” is unfair, since experienced observers know that nothing good comes easy.  Market participants, however, do not take the detached, academic view of these developments.

Markets hate uncertainty.  Democratic revolts in the Middle East, state legislators leaving their states to delay votes, and a possible federal government shutdown are all sources of fear.

The Big Worries

Here is how I assess the big worries.

I am pretty close to the Wisconsin story, and it does have implications for other states.  It has political interest and important policy implications for the employees and services provided in the states, but the investment angle is not as important.

The shutdown of the federal government would be a major negative for services, consumption, and the markets.  I expect that the cooler heads in Congress will negotiate a temporary compromise.  This will solve the immediate issue, but keep the question of deficits and spending cuts in the front burner.

My current read is that there are limits to the Middle East oil disruption.  There does not seem to be an imminent Saudi threat — the biggest concern — and the implications in Libya are still unclear.

Current oil prices are like a foreign tax on the US economy.  There is a loss in GDP and no corresponding gain in benefits.  We all agree that it is a negative, but those who invoke “stagflation” are going too far.  As usual, James Hamilton at Econbrowser is the go-to expert on oil prices and economic effects.  At current levels, he sees the risk as much lower than in past crises.

My bottom line is that events as they have unfolded so far are not in the same ballpark as the major historical oil supply disruptions, and are unlikely to produce big enough economic multipliers that they could precipitate a new economic downturn. They might shave a half percent off annual GDP growth, but I don’t anticipate a whole lot worse than that.

 In addition, the Fed does not see current oil prices as a trigger for action.

Our Own Forecast

We base our “official” weekly posture on ratings from our TCA-ETF “Felix” model.  After a mostly bullish posture for several months, Felix has turned  more cautious.  Four weeks ago we said it was a close call, and switched to neutral.  Three weeks ago it was still close, but we shifted back to bullish in the weekly Ticker Sense Blogger Sentiment Poll.  We remained bullish this week.  Here is what we see:

  • 82% of our 56 ETF’s have a positive rating, up from 77% last week.
  • 45% of our 56 sectors are in our “penalty box,” down from 55% last week.  This is an indication of significant, but reduced short-term risk.
  • Our universe has a median strength of +20, about the same as +19 last week.

The overall picture remains slightly bullish.  We are fully invested in trading accounts since there are several strong sectors, but we are watching the indicators quite carefully.  This has been a very close call for several weeks.

[For more on the penalty box see this article.  For more on the system ratings, you can write to etf at newarc dot com for our free report package or to be added to the (free) weekly email list.  You can also write personally to me with questions or comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.]

The Week Ahead

There are a number of reports this week, but here is what I will be watching.

  • The ongoing protests in Wisconsin and the Middle East — what a juxtaposition!  I don’t see a big link to stock prices right now, but I am watching.
  • The chances for a federal government shutdown.  It seems stupid, but who knows?
  • Energy prices.
  • Jobs, jobs, jobs.  I’ll have my regular employment preview on Wednesday, but I think things are looking a little better on the jobs front.

Investment Implications

The reaction of investors last week was quite interesting.  Many were willing to sell at the first sign of trouble–in this case rising energy prices.  For many, this was the start of the long-awaited correction.

There has only been minor selling, but we are already seeing some doomsday forecasts.  Those fully-invested wonder whether they should sell to lock in gains.  Those under-invested were looking for a chance to buy, but are now having second thoughts.

This is not a matter of psychology, it is a matter of system.

If you do not know how to deal with a correction during an extended rally, you do not have a system.  You are just guessing.

Each week I try to share solid indicators that provide some guidance — an approach that I have used successfully for many years.

This week  you can do even better:  Listen to Mr. Buffett!  His annual letter has a lot of advice about fear.  You should kick back and spend some time with his advice.

You can and should also read some expert commentaries.  I like David Merkel’s take.  Abnormal Returns also cites several good reviews.  This is strong advice on figuring out your approach to investing and starting a plan.

My own first question to new clients is whether the goal is preserving wealth or creating wealth.  The next questions determine how much risk is appropriate.  I try to put the Buffett approach into practice and so should you.

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  • Mark Wolfinger February 28, 2011  

    I can deal with the correction.
    How do I know it’s an extended rally and the party is not over?

  • oldprof February 28, 2011  

    Mark — I look at four factors:
    1) Expected earnings — up more than stock prices
    2) Economic growth — improving, supporting of profits
    3) Financial risk — at lowest levels in years
    4) Good stock of widely-publicized worries — we have in abundance.
    You certainly ask the question on the mind of all, and one that I try to revisit each week.

  • Paul in KC March 1, 2011  

    That was helpful Jeff. Thanks

  • Ken March 1, 2011  

    Jeff, I like your blog, though the first thing I ever wrote as a comment was critical.
    I have one wish: in your weekly series, and generally, you appear to me to focus on short-term risk and on what returns are likely to be for, maybe, a year or so. That seems to me to be your whole focus, maybe it’s just all I have read. It appears to conflict with your statements about how you operate in your actual investment business, whereby you look to what a client seeks, and you are more agnostic, including as to things like investment timeframes. While I find your blog a wonderful anectdote to the negativity, you don’t seem to say anything about the long-term. Perhaps that’s just because you’re an active manager, and now you say what you say, and that’s enough for you. But I would love to hear a thought on whether you think the S&P or another index, or stocks, are a hold/buy for ten years, or thirty years, rather than one year, and why. Or is that something you just don’t attempt to model?

  • oldprof March 3, 2011  

    Ken– I want to answer your fine questions, but let me first talk about what I do and negativity. I want to be clear that our outlook is often neutral and sometimes bearish. I go with the data, and I carefully explain the methods. This is in sharp contrast to most pundits who never change their viewpoints.
    You are correct that my weekly piece looks at the week ahead. Our Felix model looks about three weeks ahead.
    I often write for the long-term investor, but none of my accounts are “buy and hold.” Everything is actively managed since I expect to find new and good themes all of the time.
    For most people, paying a small fee to get good management is a good deal. But let’s take the hypothetical example of someone who wants a completely passive approach.
    I think that such a portfolio should have an annually reviewed asset allocation, reflecting current earnings expectations and interest rates. Like Warren Buffett, I like stocks much better than bonds right now. If you are a young person who is looking ahead, buying stocks and adding to the portfolio is a good plan. Check it out every year or two to see how things are changing, but do not get caught up in the scare stories.
    Thanks for the good question. I may need to emphasize more the various time frames. Most people seem to have forgotten that things get better over time, including profits and stock prices.