Weekly High Frequency Indicators: Housing Continues Improvement, While Employment Worsens


Purpose

I look at the high frequency weekly indicators because while they can be very noisy, they provide a good nowcast of the economy, and will telegraph the maintenance or change in the economy well before monthly or quarterly data is available. They are also an excellent way to “mark your beliefs to market.” In general, I go in order of long leading indicators, then short leading indicators, then coincident indicators.

A Note on Methodology

Data is presented in a “just the facts, ma’am” format with a minimum of commentary so that bias is minimized.

Where relevant, I include 12-month highs and lows in the data in parentheses to the right. All data taken from St. Louis FRED unless otherwise linked.

A few items (e.g., Financial Conditions indexes, regional Fed indexes, stock prices, the yield curve) have their own metrics based on long-term studies of their behavior.

Where data is seasonally adjusted, generally it is scored positively if it is within the top 1/3 of that range, negative in the bottom 1/3, and neutral in between. Where it is not seasonally adjusted, and there are seasonal issues, waiting for the YoY change to change sign will lag the turning point. Thus I make use of a convention: data is scored neutral if it is less than 1/2 as positive/negative as at its 12-month extreme.

With long leading indicators, which by definition turn at least 12 months before a turning point in the economy as a whole, there is an additional rule: data is automatically negative if, during an expansion, it has not made a new peak in the past year, with the sole exception that it is scored neutral if it is moving in the right direction and is close to making a new high.

For all series where a graph is available, I have provided a link to where the relevant graph can be found.

Recap of monthly reports

April data included housing permits, starts, and existing home sales, all of which fell sharply. Partly as a result, the Index of Leading Indicators also fell over 4% (which was much less worse than last month’s slide of nearly -8%).

Note: For many indicators, I have added the week of the worst reading since the coronavirus crisis began in parentheses following this week’s number. The first indication of bottoming will be when these comparisons get “less worse,” and a bottom will probably be in when the comparison improves by about 1/2).

Long leading indicators

Interest rates and credit spreads

Rates

  • BAA corporate bond index 3.88%, down -0.16% w/w (1-yr range: 3.29-5.18)
  • 10-year Treasury bonds 0.66%, up +0.02% w/w (0.54-2.79)
  • Credit spread 3.22%, down -0.18% w/w (1.96-4.31)

(Graph at FRED Graph | FRED | St. Louis Fed)

Yield curve

  • 10 year minus 2 year: +0.49%, down -0.01% w/w (-0.04-0.55)
  • 10 year minus 3 month: +0.53%, up +0.01% w/w (-0.52-0.70)
  • 2 year minus Fed funds: +0.07%, down -0.03% w/w

(Graph at FRED Graph | FRED | St. Louis Fed)

30-Year conventional mortgage rate (from Mortgage News Daily) (graph at link)

  • 3.04%, down -.05% w/w (3.03-4.63) (NEW SERIES LOW INTROWEEK)

BAA Corporate bonds and Treasury bonds turned positive several months ago. That corporate bonds fell to another new expansion low late last year would ordinarily be extremely bullish into Q1 2021, but the more recent spike to nearly five-year highs would ordinarily mean this is a negative. In the past two months, bonds have bounced back into positive territory near their lows.

The spread between corporate bonds and Treasuries recently turned very negative, but has also bounced back significantly. Two of the three measures of the yield curve remain solidly positive, while the Fed funds vs. two-year spread turned neutral. Mortgage rates at new all-time lows are extremely positive.

Housing

Mortgage applications (from the Mortgage Bankers Association)

  • Purchase apps +6% w/w to 259 (184-315) (SA)
  • Purchase apps 4 wk avg. +18 to 233 (SA)
  • Purchase apps YoY -1.5% (NSA) (Worst: -35% on 4/18)
  • Purchase apps YoY 4 wk avg. -13% (NSA)
  • Refi apps -6% w/w (SA)

*(SA) = seasonally adjusted, (NSA) = not seasonally adjusted

(Graph here)

Real Estate Loans (from the FRB)

  • Up 0.1% w/w
  • Up +4.2% YoY (2.8-5.2)

(Graph at Real Estate Loans, All Commercial Banks | FRED | St. Louis Fed)

With lower rates since early 2019, purchase mortgage applications were solidly positive. When the crisis started, they reverted back to negative. In the past several weeks, however, they have rebounded strongly and are now roughly 50% of the way back towards their all time highs. Lower rates also recently led to a decadal high in refi.

With the exception of several weeks in 2019, real estate loans generally stayed positive for the past several years.

Money supply

M1

  • +1.4% w/w
  • +8.0% m/m
  • +34.7% YoY Real M1 (-0.1 to 34.7) (new one-year high)

M2

  • +1.3% w/w
  • +6.4% m/m
  • +22.7% YoY Real M2 (2.0-22.7) (new one year high)

(Graph at FRED Graph | FRED | St. Louis Fed)

In 2018 and early in 2019, real M1 turned neutral and very briefly negative. Real M2 growth fell below 2.5% almost all during 2018 and early 2019, and so was rated negative. Last year, both continued to improve, and for the past few months, both have turned and remained positive. Fed actions to combat the economic crash have only amplified that.

Corporate profits (estimated and actual S&P 500 earnings from I/B/E/S via FactSet.com)

  • Q1 2020 95% actual + 5% estimated, down -0.22 to 33.38, down -20.1% q/q, down -22.2% from Q4 2018 peak

(Graph: P. 24 at here)

FactSet estimates earnings, which are replaced by actual earnings as they are reported, and are updated weekly. Based on the preliminary results, I expanded the “neutral” band to +/-3% as well as averaging the previous two quarters together, until at least 100 companies have actually reported.

Q1 earnings have been dismal as expected. Needless to say, this metric is negative.

Credit conditions (from the Chicago Fed) (graph at link)

  • Financial Conditions Index down -0.06 (looser) to -0.46
  • Adjusted Index (removing background economic conditions) up +0.01 (from tight to loose) to +0.25
  • Leverage subindex down -0.02 (less tight) to +0.52

The Chicago Fed’s Adjusted Index’s real break-even point is roughly -0.25. In the leverage index, a negative number is good, a positive poor. The historical breakeven point has been -0.5 for the unadjusted Index. In early April, all turned negative. In the past month, there has been a rebound.

Short leading indicators

Trade weighted US$

Both measures of the US$ were negative early in 2019. In late summer, both improved to neutral on a YoY basis. The measure against major currencies took a major spill recently. Both measures had recently been neutral. The broad measure has remained negative, while against major currencies it remains neutral.

Commodity prices

Bloomberg Commodity Index

  • Up +1.08 to 62.74 (58.87-83.08)
  • Down -20.5% YoY (Worst: -26.0% on April 25)

(Graph here)

Bloomberg Industrial metals ETF (from Bloomberg) (graph at link)

  • 96.48, up +2.34 w/w (88.46-124.03)
  • Down -13.4% YoY (Worst: -23.6% on April 11)

Both industrial metals and the broader commodities indexes declined to very negative into 2019 and remain extremely negative, although there has been a bit of a bounce in the past month.

Stock prices S&P 500 (from CNBC) (graph at link)

In 2019 stocks made repeated new three-month and all-time highs, but none since February 19, more than three months ago, which means this drops out of the comparison. Since they did make a new three-month low two months ago in March, this metric drops to negative. If there is neither a new three-month high or low in the next 30 days, it will return to neutral.

Regional Fed New Orders Indexes

(*indicates report this week) (no reports this week)

The regional average is more volatile than the ISM manufacturing index, but usually correctly forecasts its month-over-month direction. All during 2019 it had been waxing and waning between positive and flat until it turned negative in January. In February there was a strong positive spike, but in March this fell apart and the average is now even more negative than during the Great Recession. It has rebounded significantly this month.

Employment metrics

Initial jobless claims

  • 2,438,000, down -543,000 w/w (Worst: 6.867 M on April 4)
  • 4-week average 3,042,000, down -574,500 w/w (Worst: 5.786 M on April 25)

(Graph at FRED Graph | FRED | St. Louis Fed)

Initial claims made new 49-year lows in April 2019. Needless to say, that has all gone out the window. The best that can be said is that the pace of new claims has slowed to less than half its record from six weeks ago.

Temporary staffing index (from the American Staffing Association) (graph at link)

  • Unchanged at 60 w/w
  • Down -36.2% YoY (new Worst)

This index turned negative in February 2019, worsened in the second half of the year, and has plummeted in the past month.

Tax Withholding (from the Dept. of the Treasury)

  • $164.8 B for the last 20 reporting days vs. $185.9 B one year ago, down -$21.1 B or -11.4% (Worst: -13.2% on May 8)

YoY comparisons were almost uniformly positive since February 2019, until five weeks ago. Three weeks ago they turned firmly negative.

Oil prices and usage (from the E.I.A.)

  • Oil up +$3.75 to $33.47 w/w, down -43.0% YoY
  • Gas prices up +$.03 to $1.88 w/w, down -$0.97 YoY (Worst: -$1.12 on May 1)
  • Usage 4-week average down -29.1% YoY (Worst: -43.7% on May 1)

(Graphs at This Week In Petroleum Gasoline Section)

At the beginning of this year, they went higher YoY, but since have abruptly turned lower; thus they have turned positive. Gas prices have are near 20-year lows. Usage was positive YoY during most of 2019 and had oscillated between negative and positive for the last several months. It turned decisively negative since the beginning of April. It has rebounded significantly off its worst point three weeks ago.

Bank lending rates

  • 0.240 TED spread down -0.04 w/w (0.21-1.51) (graph at link)
  • 0.170 LIBOR down -0.01 w/w (0.17-2.50) (graph at link) (new one year low)

Both TED and LIBOR rose in 2016 to the point where both were usually negatives, with lots of fluctuation. Of importance is that TED was above 0.50 before both the 2001 and 2008 recessions. After being whipsawed between being positive or negative in 2018, since early 2019 the TED spread remained positive – until four weeks ago, when it turned negative again. But both TED and LIBOR have declined far enough to turn positive.

Business formations

Prof. Geoffrey Moore included net formations minus bankruptcies as measured by Dun & Bradstreet among his 11 short leading indicators. This statistic, which isn’t exactly the same and is only 15 years old, is a similar measure. There is marked seasonality and considerable variance week to week, but a five-week average cuts down on most of that noise while retaining at least a short leading signal that appears to turn 1-3 months before the cycle.

This turned negative YoY nine weeks ago as soon as coronavirus turned into a real issue. There has been significant improvement in the past three weeks.

Coincident indicators

Note: The St. Louis FRED has initiated a Weekly Economic Index consisting of many of the same components as I track below, plus the weekly Rasmussen consumer index, electricity usage, plus initial and continued jobless claims and the Staffing Index I track above. You can find it here.

Restaurant reservations YoY (from Open Table)

I will update this for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. The last day that restaurant reservations were positive YoY was February 24. The sharp break downward began on March 9. Despite the reopening of restaurants in some states, consumer enthusiasm has been noticeably lacking.

Consumer spending

  • Johnson Redbook down -9.5% YoY (new Worst)
  • Retail Economist +1.3% w/w, -16.6% YoY (Worst: 27.5% on April 25)

In April the bottom fell out below the Retail Economist reading. Redbook finally turned negative four weeks ago.

Transport

Railroads (from the AAR)

  • Carloads down -30.2% YoY (new Worst)
  • Intermodal units down -14.0% YoY (Worst: -22.4% on May 1)
  • Total loads down -22.0% YoY (Worst: -39.4% on May 8)

(Graph at Railfax Report – North American Rail Freight Traffic Carloading Report)

Shipping transport

Since January 2019 rail has been almost uniformly negative and worsened beginning late in the year. YoY comparisons have continued to worsen in April.

Harpex made new three-year highs in mid-2019 and remained near those highs until the beginning of this year. It has declined about 165 points. BDI traced a similar trajectory, making new three-year highs into September 2019, then declining to new three-year lows at the beginning of February. It remains above those lows, but is still a negative. With the recovery in China, these measures may begin to improve.

I am wary of reading too much into price indexes like this, since they are heavily influenced by supply (as in, a huge overbuilding of ships in the last decade) as well as demand.

Steel production (from the American Iron and Steel Institute)

  • Down -1.9% w/w
  • Down -37.2% YoY (Worst: -39.4% on May 8)

By autumn of 2019, the YoY comparisons were almost exclusively negative. It was generally positive since the beginning of this year, but in March it turned negative again. The bottom fell out in April.

Summary And Conclusion

There were only two changes among any of the three time frames this week: mortgage applications rose to neutral, and stock prices, as the last high in February dropped out of the comparisons, turned negative. Several strong rebounds continued: money supply, purchase mortgage applications, mortgage rates (which made new all-time lows), business formations, and stock prices. On the other hand, two of the series did make “new worsts” since the start of the Coronavirus Recession: staffing and rail carloads.

Among the coincident indicators, everything except for the TED spread and LIBOR – consumer spending, tax withholding, the Baltic Dry Index, rail, steel, restaurant reservations, Harpex and the BDI – remains negative.

Among the short leading indicators, gas and oil prices are positives. The broad US$ and the spread between corporate and Treasury bonds are neutral. Temporary staffing, the US$ against major currencies, initial claims, the regional Fed new orders indexes, the Chicago Financial Conditions Index, gas usage, business formations, and both industrial and overall commodities are negative, joined this week by stock prices.

Among the long leading indicators, corporate bonds, Treasuries, mortgage rates, two out of three measures of the yield curve, real M1 and real M2, real estate loans, and mortgage refinancing as positives are all positives. The two-year Treasury minus Fed funds yield spread remains neutral, joined by purchase mortgage applications. Corporate profits are negative, as are the Adjusted Chicago Financial Conditions Index and its Leverage subindex.

The fundamental story remains the same. Both the nowcast and the short-term forecast remain awful. The long-term forecast is weakly positive, once enough people correctly believe that it is safe to participate in the economy.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.





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