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US Economic Data Reassures and Oil Prices Steady
The resilience of the US economy, as demonstrated by recent data, aligns with our previously outlined thinking that US fundamentals remain relatively solid, and that market movements at the start of 2016 may have overstated the external risks to US growth. Policymakers at the US Federal Reserve (Fed) have given a variety of indications about how much these external developments will influence future decisions, but given their consistent emphasis that any such moves will be data-dependent, it seems likely that the past month’s broadly positive economic numbers will feature prominently in their thinking.
Over the course of February and immediately following month-end, reassuring signs emerged that the US economy remained on course despite slowing global growth. In tandem with a stabilization of oil prices, such developments helped to quell the unease seen across financial markets since the start of the year. Uncertainty about how the US economy would deal with weakness in other countries and a tightening of financial conditions peaked in mid-February, exacerbating market volatility. As a result, 10-year US Treasury yields fell to their lowest level since 2012 amid rising risk aversion among investors, while the already significant distance between the Fed’s own forecasts for the timing of future rises in US policy rates and the far slower pace forecasted by market consensus widened even further.
However, during the second half of February, several pieces of economic data beat consensus expectations, refuting more bearish forecasts that the US economy was about to tip into recession. The positive news included an upward revision of annualized gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the fourth quarter of 2015 from 0.7% to 1.0%, even though this was largely due to a build-up of inventories, which was seen as a potential headwind for the US economy over the first three months of 2016. The strength of the US consumer was underlined by January’s acceleration of both personal income and consumer spending by 0.5% compared with the previous month, suggesting this key driver of the US economy remained intact. Income was boosted by a 0.6% monthly rise in wages and salaries, the third healthy gain in the last four months, underlining how the robust US labor market was likely feeding into consumer demand.
The February payroll report provided further evidence that the path for the US economy had not yet been significantly affected by external headwinds. An addition of 242,000 jobs was much higher than expected and was accompanied by upward revisions to the number of jobs added in each of the two prior months. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9%, remaining at its lowest level since 2008, while the labor force participation rate continued to rebound, rising slightly to 62.9% as the strong labor market encouraged more people to start, or resume, looking for jobs. The February report, however, did contain some less encouraging news on wages, with average hourly earnings weaker than forecast, sliding 0.1% month-on-month compared with January’s 0.5% expansion, and the annual rate falling 0.3% from the previous month to 2.2%.
There was some more encouraging news from US manufacturers, with January’s industrial production and durable goods numbers indicating that concerns about previously weak data might have been overdone. Though the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM’s) manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for February remained slightly below the 50 level that would signify expansion, the trend within the survey for production and new orders was positive. Overall, the picture indicated domestic demand for most companies was holding up reasonably well, even as conditions for exporters and energy-related sectors remained difficult. The ISM’s PMI for services remained in expansionary territory in February, showing little change from the previous month except for the employment element of the survey, which marginally contracted for the first time since early 2014.
Signs emerged that inflationary pressures within the US economy could be gathering pace. Data readings were strong; the Fed’s preferred measure, the core personal consumer expenditures price index, rose more than expected in January to 1.7% year-on-year, its highest level for more than three years and not far short of the Fed’s 2% target. Core consumer prices jumped 0.3% on a monthly basis and gained 2.2% over 12 months, with the latter reading reflecting a rise of 0.1% from December’s figure. The equivalent headline data (including food and energy) were unchanged month-on-month, with an increase of 1.4% year-on-year, held back by monthly declines of 2.8% in energy and 4.8% in gasoline.
The depth of the slump in energy prices was underlined by the fall in the US oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, which reached a 12-year low of around US$26 per barrel in the second week of February. However, greater stability in oil prices over the second half of the month—alongside the positive tone of economic data—helped spark a wider rebound in riskier assets, with equities collectively recovering a significant portion of the losses they had sustained since the start of 2016. In addition, a widely used measure of future inflation based on US Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, which had mirrored the slump in the price of oil and had fallen to its lowest level since the global financial crisis by early February, rebounded in line with the pickup in oil prices.
China’s Economy Still Slowing, Though Better News for Commodity Producers
In contrast with the more upbeat tone from the United States, the picture for much of the rest of the world remained somewhat uncertain. Data from China underlined the extent of the slowdown in that country’s economy, with official PMIs for both manufacturing and services slipping in February, the former to its lowest level since 2009. In response to weaker growth, Chinese policymakers trimmed official growth forecasts for 2016 to 6.5%–7.0% and also announced a fiscal stimulus package, although the projected budget deficit of 3% of GDP for this year was less than consensus expectations. Credit-rating agency Moody’s lowered its outlook for Chinese sovereign debt from stable to negative, citing rising debt and falling foreign exchange reserves, as well as uncertainty about the capacity of the Chinese authorities to implement reforms.
The problem of how to address the low level of global growth overshadowed the G20 meeting of finance ministers that took place in Shanghai in February. There was little support for a globally coordinated stimulus package—as called for by the International Monetary Fund ahead of the meeting—and little sign of agreement among countries on other potential policy responses. However, the head of the People’s Bank of China did indicate that Chinese policymakers were aware of the need to manage market expectations of their renminbi strategy, following investors’ confusion over messaging since last summer.
In spite of ongoing concerns about the Chinese slowdown, the steadying of oil prices provided better news for countries that are significant oil producers, as did a further rally in industrial metals and iron ore, which rose to their highest levels so far this year. As a result, many of these countries’ currencies performed strongly in February, reversing some of their earlier losses suffered as commodity prices tumbled.
The impact of the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ’s) move to adopt negative interest rates continued to be felt. As 10-year Japanese government bond yields remained below zero over the latter part of February, at its subsequent auction the Japanese government sold new 10-year bonds at a negative yield for the first time, becoming only the second sovereign issuer (after Switzerland) to do so. Much of the offering was expected to be sold back to the BOJ as part of its wider bond-buying program. However, the continued strength of the Japanese yen raised questions about the efficacy of the BOJ’s policy shift to negative rates, particularly since it adopted a tiered structure that seemed designed to encourage currency weakness while protecting banks and savers.
Elsewhere, the prospect of a return to international capital markets by Argentina grew closer after the country’s new government agreed to a prospective settlement with its most significant creditors, who had held out against previous restructuring offers. The negotiation of such an agreement had long been rejected by the country’s prior populist administration, leading creditors to gain a ruling in US courts that precipitated Argentina’s default in 2014, and so prevented it from issuing further debt. The incoming government moved to carry out many promised reforms, including the removal of capital controls and reduction of high export tariffs. Though subject to approval by Argentina’s congress, the deal seemed set to be passed, paving the way for what Argentinian Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gay said was likely to be a US$15 billion issue of new bonds.
We regard the greater stability in commodity prices, along with a lessening of volatility in financial markets, as welcome, and believe it should provide a more stable platform for the global economy, where growth remains acceptable, if lower than desirable. While accommodative monetary policy is likely to provide an offsetting stimulus to weak global demand, we do, however, share some of the concerns expressed by others about the limits to what negative policy rates can achieve, if such policies are not targeted correctly.
Europe’s Central Bank Acts Boldly on Inflation but Region’s Real Economy Holding Up
The eurozone fell back into deflation in February for the first time since September 2015, with most of the year-on-year decline in prices due to the slump in energy prices. At the core level, prices rose by 0.7% over the same period, a slowdown from the 1.0% seen in the previous month. Such a weak inflation backdrop helped to persuade the ECB to unveil an aggressive set of measures at its March meeting, consisting of a cut in its benchmark rate, another reduction in its deposit rate—taking it further into negative territory—and an expansion of the size and scope of its bond-buying program. At the same time, the ECB cut its inflation forecast for 2016 from 1.0% to 0.1%.
In terms of other data, the overall tone for Europe was slightly negative, giving some weight to the argument that Europe was more exposed than the United States to the effects of weakness in emerging markets. The Ifo survey of German business expectations fell to 98.8 in February, down from 102.3 in January and to its lowest level since 2012. However, a survey of German consumers, who have made a significant contribution to driving growth in Europe’s largest economy, came in higher than consensus expectations during February, as the country’s tight labor market bolstered confidence.
The electoral pattern seen in recent times across several European countries—in which voters have turned away from incumbent political parties and toward more populist alternatives—was repeated in Ireland’s parliamentary elections in February, as an inconclusive result left the country in limbo ahead of potentially protracted negotiations to form a governing coalition. Elections in Slovakia produced a similar outcome and added to previous indecisive results in countries such as Portugal and Spain. Collectively they emphasized the breadth of disenchantment among eurozone voters with the mixture of austerity and weak-to-negligible growth in their incomes since the global financial crisis and subsequent regional debt problems. In Spain, which has been without a government since the end of last year, fresh elections in June still appeared the most likely course after attempts by the Socialist party to form a minority administration failed, although polls suggested another round of voting would probably see little change in the country’s deeply divided political landscape.
As expected, the UK government announced a referendum would take place in June to decide whether Britain would remain part of the European Union (EU). Following a leading Conservative politician’s announcement of his support for the campaign to leave, volatility increased in some UK-specific financial assets, with spreads for some UK issuers of euro-denominated bonds widening considerably and the British pound falling to its lowest level against the US dollar since 2009.
A number of near-term risks clearly exist for European markets, not least the potential for the United Kingdom to vote to leave the EU in June—particularly if data coming out of Europe deteriorates in the run-up to the referendum or if there is an escalation in the refugee crisis. However, we maintain our belief that the overall performance of the European economy is reasonable and that the “real economy”—the parts tied to the production of goods and services—seems so far to have been broadly insulated from the recent volatility in financial markets. While inflation has remained low, it at least has been on a positive trajectory, and similarly though growth is by no means robust, it is being led for the most part by domestic consumption.
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All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal. The value of investments can go down as well as up, and investors may not get back the full amount invested. Bond prices generally move in the opposite direction of interest rates. Thus, as prices of bonds in an investment portfolio adjust to a rise in interest rates, the value of the portfolio may decline. Investments in foreign securities involve special risks including currency fluctuations, economic instability and political developments. Investments in developing markets involve heightened risks related to the same factors, in addition to those associated with their relatively small size and lesser liquidity.