Archive for April, 2009

Economy Down - Stocks Up

Kurt Brouwer April 29th, 2009

The Commerce Department released a preliminary report on the economy for the first quarter. As expected, economic output was down, falling by a 6.1% annual rate.

One of the biggest contributors to the decline was inventory reduction. Businesses slashed inventories by the biggest amount since records began in 1947. Though this hurt in the first quarter, it is a good sign that businesses were flexible enough to be able to cut their own purchases by that amount. It also sets up an inventory buildup later in the year as businesses began stocking those empty shelves.

U.S. Economy: GDP Shrinks in Worst Recession in 50 Years (Bloomberg, April 29, 2020, Bob Willis)

…Gross domestic product dropped at a 6.1 percent annual pace, weaker than forecast, after contracting at a 6.3 percent rate in the last three months of 2008, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The report, which reflected a record slump in inventories and further declines in housing, comes hours before Federal Reserve officials decide how much money to pump into the economy.

Smaller stockpiles may set the stage for a return to growth in the second half of the year amid signs Fed efforts to reduce borrowing costs and unclog lending are starting to pay off. The contraction persisted even as lower gasoline prices and larger tax refunds helped bring an end to the worst slump in consumer spending in almost three decades…

Despite the dire news on the economy, stocks opened up quite a bit higher today. I try to avoid attributing a rise or fall in the stock market — a marketplace with millions of buyers and sellers — to one single factor like good news on banks as this piece does. Nonetheless, stocks opened up higher on a day when the economic news was not good. That alone makes it interesting.

One thing I did not like was the garbled comparisons throughout this piece — ‘the worst recession in 50 years’ or the ‘second-worst recession since the Great Depression’ or whatever. After a while all these comparisons become quite meaningless. I suppose journalists should be excused a little hyperbole in their writing, but I believe comparisons should be accurate and they should also be useful.

Here is a chart from the wonderful Calculated Risk blog that shows how far GDP has declined in this recession versus the cataclysmic decline during the Great Depression. This was done before Q1 results were in, but the estimate was very close:

Source: Calculated Risk

Calculated Risk had this to say about the chart [emphasis added]:

What is a depression? (Calculated Risk, March 10, 2020)

…The Great Depression saw real GDP decline 26.5%.

The post-WWII recession lasted 8 months and saw real GDP decline 13%. This decline in GDP was due to winding down the war effort - something that was celebrated - and is excluded when analysts call the current slump the “worst since the Great Depression”…

This post-World War II recession was a serious downturn that is often overlooked. It was sharp and severe as our war effort wound down and millions of men and women returned from the war. It was a deep recession that is largely ignored in all the media hype about this being the worst downturn since the depression. In this current recession, we have seen a cumulative decline of 3.3%. The post-WWII recession had a GDP decline of 13% — that is roughly four times the current one.

The economy contracted 26% during the Great Depression. That is nearly eight times the contraction we have had in this current recession. If you read that this contraction was roughly 1/8th of the Great Depression that would seem quite different, wouldn’t it? It would also have the virtue of being both accurate and useful in putting this downturn in perspective.

Bloomberg continues:

Stocks rose for the first time in three days as bank shares rallied on an analyst report that non-performing assets will peak this year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up 2.1 percent at 872.76 as of 10:50 a.m. in New York. Treasuries were little changed, with benchmark 10-year notes yielding 2.99 percent.

…The world’s largest economy has shrunk 3.3 percent since peaking in last year’s second quarter, already making this the second-worst recession since the Great Depression. GDP shrank 3.8 percent during the 1957-58 contraction, according to figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The next point is very interesting. It appears that consumer spending actually perked up considerably. That is quite a turnaround (see U.S. Consumer Confidence Jumps).

…Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, climbed at a 2.2 percent annual pace last quarter, the most in two years. Purchases dropped at an average 4.1 percent rate in the last half of 2008, the biggest slide since 1980.

…“Most people are saying we could bottom out in the second half of the year, maybe in the third quarter, and then see positive growth again,” Christina Romer, the White House’s chief economist, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We’re certainly looking for some positive news towards the end of the year.”

Companies trimmed stockpiles at a $103.7 billion annual rate last quarter, the biggest drop since records began in 1947. Excluding the reduction, the economy would have contracted at a 3.4 percent pace.

I was in the grocery store recently and noticed the shelves were a lot emptier than usual. It could have been because people were stocking up, but even staples such as milk were in short supply and I doubt people stock up too much on things like milk. Holding lots of inventory costs money and businesses are clearly trying to be as lean as they can be.

…“This is one of those good-bad numbers,” Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc. in Holland, Pennsylvania, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Businesses are running about as lean as they possibly can be. It sets up the reality that any sort of increase in demand will cause firms to have to increase production.”

As a result, Naroff predicted growth won’t “be nearly as bad in the current quarter, and will probably be reasonably good.”

Another source of the decline was a reduction in government spending. We have written about this before, but this piece also makes the point that state governments are cutting spending — and often raising taxes — at a very inopportune time. I believe states should build up reserves during the fat years so they can have some spending power in the lean years.

One reason for the larger-than-projected decline in GDP was that government slashed spending at a 3.9 percent pace, the most since 1995. The drop reflected a cutback in defense spending and the biggest decrease in state and local government outlays since 1981, reflecting slumping tax revenue…

I believe this is the toughest stretch for the economy. Next quarter will probably also be down, but not nearly as much (see also Are We Talking Great Depression?).

Case-Shiller Index: SF Bay Area Home Prices

Kurt Brouwer April 28th, 2009

This is a nice chart that shows the price activity for housing in the great San Francisco Bay Area by price tier. Lower-priced homes went up the most and they have declined the most too.

Source: Calculated Risk

The Case-Shiller Index covers housing across the country by regions. In this case, the statistics cover the broad SF Bay Area. From what I have seen, homes in San Francisco itself have held up better than the outlying areas.

The real question I have from this chart, is what comes next? Typically, when prices for any asset overshoot on the high side then there is a tendency to overshoot on the low side as well. But, what’s the low side?

Sales volumes have picked up considerably, particularly in areas with lots of foreclosures and bank-owned homes. However, prices probably have a ways to go before we can consider a bottom to have been reached.

IBM Boosts Dividend 10%

Kurt Brouwer April 28th, 2009

We have seen a long string of companies cutting dividends. Now, we find out that IBM is doing fine and is raising its dividend as this Wall Street Journal piece spells out:

IBM Raises Dividend, Still Eyes Acquisitions (Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020, William M. Bulkeley)

International Business Machines Corp. boosted its quarterly dividend 10% and said its board authorized another $3 billion for the company’s stock repurchase program, bringing the buyback program’s total to $6.7 billion.

The tech bellwether, which has generally weathered the economic slowdown because of cost cuts and benefits from its product mix, raised its dividend to 55 cents a share…

Despite the moves, IBM “absolutely” still has the financial flexibility to make a large acquisition, Jesse Greene, vice president financial management said in an interview.

Earlier this month IBM was outbid for Sun Microsystems Corp. by Oracle Corp. IBM had examined Sun’s books for weeks and had offered to buy it for around $7 billion, according to people familiar with the situation.

Mr. Greene noted that IBM generated cash in the seasonally weak first quarter and expects to generate considerably more in the second half. It had $12 billion in cash at the end of the quarter…

$12 billion in cash on the balance sheet is a rather impressive number. Had it wanted to do so, IBM could have done the $7 billion Sun Microsystem acquisition with cash on hand.

I don’t know why they walked away from the deal, but this is a target rich environment for a company with plenty of cash. I am sure IBM will find more opportunities out there.

U.S. Consumer Confidence Jumps

Kurt Brouwer April 28th, 2009

As Americans, most of us tend to be optimistic, but the events of the past 18 months or so have dampened that normal state. As a result, consumer confidence ratings had sunk to a very low level. This Bloomberg piece indicates that consumer confidence has bounced off the bottom [emphasis added]:

U.S. Economy: Confidence Indexes Rise Most Since 2005 (Bloomberg, April 28, 2020, Shobhana Chandra and Courtney Schlisserman)

Consumer confidence in the U.S. jumped by the most since 2005 this month as stocks rallied, mortgage rates dropped and Americans anticipated more jobs would become available.

The Conference Board’s sentiment index rose more than forecast to a five-month high of 39.2. A separate report showed the decline in home prices in 20 U.S. cities slowed in February for the first time since 2007, with the S&P/Case-Shiller index posting an 18.6 percent drop from the same month a year before.

“There certainly is starting to be a shift here, where the data is either less bad or even starting to improve,” Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners LP in New York, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. While “we certainly haven’t turned the corner yet” the economy “could bottom out between June and October of this year and then start” growing.

…Confidence was projected to rise to 29.7, from an originally reported 26 in March, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 62 economists.

The Conference Board’s measure of present conditions rose to 23.7 from 21.9 the prior month. The gauge of expectations for the next six months surged to 49.5, the highest level since the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September, from 30.2 last month.

The share of consumers who said more jobs will be available in the next six months gained to 13.9, the most since June 2007.

The outlook for current employment was more mixed. Fewer Americans said jobs were plentiful, at the same time those that said employment was hard to get also dropped.

…“Consumers believe the economy is nearing a bottom,” Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board’s consumer research center, said in a statement. Still, the index “remains well below levels associated with strong economic growth.”

Today’s confidence figures corroborate other reports. The Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment rose for a second month in April, advancing to the highest level since Lehman’s bankruptcy in September pushed the U.S. deeper into a slump.

…recent reports show efforts by Federal Reserve policy makers, who are meeting today and tomorrow, to support housing and revive lending may be starting to work. Combined purchases of new and existing houses have hovered around a 5 million annual pace since November, and sales at retailers improved in the first two months of the year…

I just got back from a trip up and down most of Northern and Central California. There are lots of problems, yet I did sense that normal economic activity is on the way back. These are very early days, so I am not putting too much weight on this report, but it is good news.

Light Posting

Kurt Brouwer April 24th, 2009

Sorry for the light posting schedule this week. I’m at a conference for National Advisors Trust Company in Santa Barbara. Many interesting presentations and lots of good stuff, but I’m not going to do much posting until tomorrow.

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