Markets strong as real economy slows
April was another month of strong equity performance, with the S&P 500 Index notching an all-time high toward month-end and with both the Dow Jones Industrials Average and the Nasdaq showing strong gains as well. The S&P 500 was up 1.93 percent, trailed slightly by the Dow at 1.94 percent and the Nasdaq at 1.88 percent.
Although markets dipped twice during the month as a result of disappointing economic news, stronger-than-expected earnings reports drove the markets back up as the month closed. With more than half of companies reporting, operating earnings per share grew 2 percent, in line with expectations, and roughly 70 percent of companies beat earnings expectations.
Despite the healthy earnings, corporate revenues were less encouraging, as more than half of companies missed top-line revenue expectations. Should this trend continue, equity valuations could come under pressure. Technically, markets were robust, with all three indices well above their 50- and 200-day moving averages, and no resistance levels above.
International markets also had a good month. The MSCI EAFE Index was up 5.19 percent, slightly better than the U.S. indices, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gained 0.66 percent. Developed international markets were spurred higher in April as a result of good news from a variety of sources. After two months of uncertainty, Italian politicians came to a compromise, electing Enrico Letta as their prime minister. Letta is known as a centrist and supporter of the European Union; his ascent led investors to buy Italian bonds, pushing the Italian 10-year yield to its lowest level in 30 months. Shockingly, Italian yields are now lower than they were in 2007, before the global financial crisis began (see chart). Portugal also took steps to become more market-friendly, announcing a plan to reduce corporate taxes.
Yield for Italy’s 10-Year Bond, 2007–2013
On the other side of the world, Japan’s central bank announced an unprecedented plan to double that nation’s monetary base in two years and put an end to the deflationary spiral that has plagued Japan for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank was poised to cut rates in early May, a move supportive of stocks and risky bonds.
April was also positive for fixed income investors. The Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index returned 1.01 percent for the month. Longer-duration bonds performed quite well, as the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield fell, from 1.84 percent to 1.673 percent. Weaker-than-anticipated economic releases, combined with continued low inflation, reassured investors that the Federal Reserve is unlikely to discontinue its easing program in the near future. International bonds performed particularly well, as foreign currencies bounced back against the dollar.
Financial markets diverge from real economy
Although performance for the financial markets was hearty in April, the real economy showed signs of a slowdown. Only 88,000 jobs were added in the U.S., well below the 268,000 new jobs reported for the month before. Weak durable goods orders also signaled a spring slowdown, and the reported gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 2.5 percent for the first quarter was somewhat below expectations. Consumer spending and business investment were the primary drivers of growth, but reduced government spending slowed the expansion.
Despite the disappointing jobs report, total labor demand stayed strong. According to the Ned Davis Research Group, the number of hours worked has increased at a level equivalent with having added 328,000 more jobs to the workforce. This suggests that overall demand is healthy, but that companies are reluctant to hire new workers. This is also consistent with the lower confidence reported by business surveys.
Consumer demand was vigorous early in the first quarter but slowed significantly toward quarter-end, with a decline in retail sales for March offsetting strong gains in previous months. In addition, although the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index fell early in April, the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index rose later in the month. This reflected the fickle nature of consumers, whose net worth has risen because of home and stock market values, but whose short-term purchasing power has been affected by taxes and gas prices.
Housing has been particularly positive for consumers. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index most recently reported a 9.32-percent gain year-over-year, as prices climbed and demand outstripped supply.
The decline in government spending continued in April—and indeed likely accelerated. In fact, during the first quarter, government spending decreased roughly 4.2 percent on an annualized basis—or 0.8 percent of GDP—according to Capital Economics. This figure was not inclusive of the sequester cuts, which came fully into effect at the beginning of April.
The economic impact of the sequester cuts is not yet known, as it will take time for them to trickle into the economy. So far, however, markets have not reacted negatively to budget downsizing. The positive side of this is that the decrease in government spending is narrowing the deficit, which is projected to come close to stabilizing in 2014. On that note, at the end of April, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that it actually expects to pay down federal government debt in the second quarter. If this were to pan out, it would be the first quarter during which federal debt has fallen in six years.
Risks around the world persist
A variety of possible risks surfaced in April. Notwithstanding the good news from Italy and Portugal, the European economy continued to stagnate, as Slovenia and other countries struggled to stabilize their banking systems. North Korea kept on rattling its cage, and several countries confirmed that Syria had used chemical weapons. If such use is deemed to have been widespread, this could spur an intervention by the U.S. and its allies. None of these risks appears to pose an imminent threat to markets, but they should be followed carefully.
Recovery moves along but at a slower pace
The U.S. economy continues its recovery, although the pace looks likely to slow into the second quarter. U.S. corporations also keep posting impressive profits, but growth may not be as significant going forward. Markets appear to be pricing in an optimistic future, but, if this scenario does not play out as expected, equity market revaluation could lower levels. In short, although there are many reasons for optimism, investors should keep in mind their personal risk tolerance and allocate capital prudently, with an eye toward long-term goals.