Morning Report: median earnings rising slower than average earnings

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2808 -2.5
Eurostoxx index 386.74 1.76
Oil (WTI) 67.62 -0.46
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.85%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.51%

Stocks are lower this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are flat.

Mortgage Applications fell 2.5% last week as purchases fell 5% and refis rose 2%. The refi share rose to 36.5%.

Housing starts hit their lowest level since September last year, falling to 1.17 million annualized. This is a huge drop from the strong May print of 1.33 million. The Midwest and the South explain the declines, which was both in single family and multi. June weather was generally good, so that isn’t the explanation. Building Permits fell as well, although not as dramatically. They came in at 1.27 million. The Midwest accounted for most of the decline in permits. Housing starts tend to be volatile, but the moving average is turning down, which is worrisome.

Despite the drop in starts, builder confidence remains strong, at least according to the NAHB. The index was flat at 68, which is an elevated number. Pricing remains strong, but the supply is not there. Rising material costs are becoming an issue as lumber tariffs raise costs. So far builders are able to pass these costs on, but there is a limit, especially if wage inflation remains below house price inflation. The median house price to median income ratio is getting back to extreme levels, and interest rates are not going to come to the rescue this time around.

Jerome Powell begins his second day of testimony on Capitol Hill. There was nothing market-moving yesterday, so expect more of the same. Yesterday, his message was that the US economy has clear sailing ahead with strong growth and moderate inflation. With regard to the potential trade war, Powell downplayed the risks to the economy and said there will be a benefit if it turns out that Trump’s actions lower tariffs overall in the global economy. The US generally has much lower tariffs than its trading partners, and Trump has already made the offer to eliminate all US tariffs if our trading partners eliminate theirs. Separately, Powell said that it would ultimately be better for the US if the GSEs were off the government balance sheet. That is pretty much a universal opinion in DC these days, as the US taxpayer bears the credit risk of the majority of the mortgage market.

Median weekly earnings have not kept pace with the CPI lately, which means workers are losing ground, at least according to the latest survey out of the BLS. It shows that the median weekly wage rose 2% in the second quarter versus an increase in the CPI of 2.7%. Interestingly, the average hourly earnings increase during Q2 was 2.64% in April, 2.74% in May and 2.74% in June. It seems strange that the difference between average wage inflation and median wage inflation would be so stark, which would imply that wages are mainly rising at the high end, not the lower end. Note the other BLS measure of wage inflation, the employment cost index, shows comp growth of 2.9%, which takes into account benefits. For the most part, average hourly earnings have been rising faster than the core PCE index:


New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maryland sued the government yesterday over the state and local tax deduction cap. The lawsuit if probably more for show than anything and doesn’t seem to have much chance of success. Some of the states are looking at workarounds, allowing people to “donate” to charitable funds which go to funding state and local services. Charitable deductions are still deductible. At the end of the day, the biggest issue to states like NY and NJ are the property taxes. NY and NJ have some of the highest property taxes in the country, where people routinely pay $20 – $30k or more. That explains at least partially why you can’t find buyers for luxury properties in the Northeast.

The ECB concludes that QE may have helped the rich, but it helped the poor more. While QE did boost asset prices (housing, bonds, stocks etc) it also boosted growth, which more than offset the increase in asset prices.  “Low short rates do hurt savers via a direct effect, that is a reduction in income on their assets . . . however [low rates] also benefit savers, like all other households, via an indirect effect — that is, the reduction in their unemployment rate and the increase in the labour income,” the paper, called “Monetary policy and household inequality”, said. “The indirect effect dominates . . . The paper also finds that [QE] reduced inequality, mainly through a reduction of the unemployment rate of poorer households.”

Note that this contradicts the observation between median and average earnings. If QE was actually decreasing inequality, you should see median earnings growth close to average earning growth or even slightly higher. Not way below.

Morning Report: Housing starts jump despite increasing lumber prices

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2752 -28
Eurostoxx index 382.86 -3.1
Oil (WTI) 64.89 -0.96
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.88%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.57%

Stocks are lower this morning on increasing trade tensions with China. Bonds and MBS are up.

Trump threatened $200 billion in sanctions on Chinese goods, which sent global markets down and bonds up. This is in addition to the $50 billion in tariffs he threatened on Friday. Stock market investors are swapping out of S&Ps and Nasdaqs into smaller cap stocks, as they are more insulated from international trade tensions.

Housing starts improved to 1.35 million in May, which is up 5% MOM and 20% YOY. Building permits came in at 1.3 million, down 5% MOM, but up 8% YOY. Most of the activity was in the Midwest, where they increased by 100k. The Northeast was down, while everywhere else was flattish. Tariffs on Canadian lumber certainly aren’t helping. Lumber prices peaked in May and are starting to decline, but they have had quite the run. The NAHB report yesterday discussed lumber prices are hurting builder confidence.


Trump formally nominated Kathleen Kraninger to replace Mick Mulvaney as the head of the CFPB. This promised to be a contentious confirmation fight, and the usual suspects are already complaining. That may actually work out in the Administration’s favor however. The tougher the confirmation fight, the longer Mick Mulvaney can remain in place and fix some of the excesses of the Bureau. Under the Vacancies Act, Mulvaney’s term as Acting Director expires on June 22. He can remain in place while her nomination is pending. If she is defeated, he would get another 210 days. If that nominee is defeated, he gets another 210. So basically, this gambit would keep Mick Mulvaney in place until 2020.

Where are Millennials moving? Where the jobs are.

Morning Report: Why we haven’t seen much wage growth (yet) and what the left gets wrong about labor markets

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2743 9.7
Eurostoxx index 388.45 1.55
Oil (WTI) 65.49 -0.32
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.91%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.54%

Stocks are higher this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are flattish.

We should have a relatively quiet week coming up, with not much in the way of data and no Fed-speak.

Friday’s jobs report was pretty much a Goldilocks report as far as the markets are concerned. Strong job growth, with respectable (but controlled) wage growth is exactly what the Fed wants to see. Tomorrow, we will get the JOLTS job openings report, which should show job openings of around 6.5 million.

Academics are scratching their heads trying to figure out why wage growth is so slow with unemployment below 4%. With the economy at “full employment” at least according to the unemployment numbers, how can so many jobs still be created? And if unemployment is below 4% and we are at a record number of job openings, where is the wage growth?

First of all, the jobs report had wage growth at 2.7%, and the core PCE inflation rate is 2%. So, we do have inflation-adjusted (i.e. real) wage growth. Second, productivity is a puzzle. It has been low for a decade, and part of the issue is that productivity is notoriously hard to measure, especially when valuable goods are “free” or hard to measure. Think of social media, which has all sorts of entertainment value and productivity enhancing value, yet is supposedly free. Yes, you are paying with your data, but what is your data worth? Productivity calculations need a dollar value. Productivity has been low, but there is a huge uncertainty range around that number.

I think a huge part of the issue is the fact that the unemployment rate excludes anyone who has been unemployed over 6 months, and there is a huge reservoir of workers on the sidelines who want to return to the labor force. Companies know this, and all they have to do is relax their standards (i.e. hire people who have been out of the labor force for a while) and they will fill their positions. At the end of the day, this is a numbers game. The employment-population ratio has been steadily increasing since 1970 as women have entered the workforce. It peaked in 2000, bottomed after the Great Recession, and has been steadily working its way upward. The demographic factor (retiring baby boomers) is probably getting overplayed here, as most people no longer can retire at 65 (and there really is no reason why most can’t continue to work).

Leftist economics are arguing that employers are somehow colluding to keep wages low, and therefore are suggesting a panoply of policy levers designed to artificially force up wages and increase unionization. Aside from non-competes in the rarefied air of Silicon Valley engineers, generally this doesn’t happen – cartels are almost impossible to make work (witness OPEC) and there are simply too many employers who don’t compete with each other to coordinate it, even if they wanted to.

Instead of jumping to the “market failure” conclusion, the answer is that there is more slack in the labor market than the numbers suggest. There may be a mismatch of skills, where there is high demand in areas where there aren’t a lot of available workers (skilled trades, data scientists) but overall the employment population ratio doesn’t lie. The last time we saw decent wage growth was the 90s, where the employment-population ratio was around 63%. The latest number was 60.4%. That difference in a population of 326 million is about 8.5 million jobs. That is about 3 year’s worth of job growth, without population growth which is still measurable at 0.7% a year. Even if you take into account the 6.5 million job openings, you still have probably 2 million extra workers on the sidelines. IMO, that is your answer about wage growth, not monopsony of collusion, which is just a specious argument for more government intervention in the labor markets.

Chart: Employment-population ratio.

employment population ratio

House price appreciation continues apace, and between rising price and interest rates, the monthly house payment on the median house with 20% down has increased by $150 a month, according to Black Knight Financial Services. Income growth at 2.7% is not going to keep up with home price appreciation, which is running at around 6% a year. When rates were falling, we were able to paper over that issue with lower mortgage payments, but that game is over. Housing starts are still way too low, and that question is even more perplexing than wage growth.

Note that private equity is now building homes for rent, which should alleviate some of the supply problem. It was only a matter of time until new entrants saw the opportunity that the big builders have been sitting on. Politicians are getting sick and tired of the lack of housing supply (especially at the lower price points).

Friday’s jobs report reversed the Euro-driven drop in the June Fed Funds futures. At one point, they were predicting a 81% chance of a hike. Now it is back up to a near certainty. The December futures are predicting a 40% chance of 4 or more hikes this year and a 60% chance of 3 or less.

Morning Report: Housing starts disappoint again

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2705 -3.5
Eurostoxx index 393.19 0.82
Oil (WTI) 70.93 -0.38
10 Year Government Bond Yield 3.06%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.65%

Stocks are lower this morning after North Korea pushed back on the proposal to end their nuke program. Bonds and MBS are higher after the the 10 year decisively pushed through the 3% level yesterday.

The 10 year hit 3.10% yesterday on no real news. If the inflation numbers aren’t all that bad, why are rates increasing? Supply. The government will need to issue about $650 billion in Treasuries this year compared to $420 billion last year. Note that one of the downsides of protectionism will be seen here – when the US buys imports from China, they usually take Treasuries in return. Less trade means less demand for paper.

Rising rates may present problems for active money managers. The average tenure is 8 years, so this is the first tightening cycle they have ever seen. For the past decade, cash and short term debt have not been any sort of competition for stocks and long term bonds. Note that the 1 year Treasury finally passed the dividend yield on the S&P 500. Stocks and bonds are going to see money managers allocate more to short term debt.

Despite rising rates, financial conditions continue to ease. The Chicago Fed National Financial Conditions Index is back to pre-crisis levels. Note that doesn’t necessarily mean we are set up for another Great Recession – the index can stay at these levels for a long time, and we don’t have a residential real estate bubble. That said, this index can be one of those canaries in a coal mine for investors – at least selling when it goes from negative to positive.


Mortgage Applications fell 2.7% last week as purchases fell 2% and refis fell 4%. The refi index is at the lowest level in almost 10 years, and the refi share of mortgage origination is at 36%. The typical conforming rate fell a basis point to 4.76%.

April Housing starts came in at 1.29 million, down 4% MOM but up 11% YOY. The Street was looking for 1.32 million. Building Permits 1.35 million which was right in line with estimates. Multi-family was the weak spot. Note that March’s numbers were unusually strong (relative to recent history), so April was a bit of a give-back.

Industrial production rose 0.7% last month while manufacturing production rose 0.5%. Capacity Utilization rose to 78%.

New York State is suing HUD to force them to continue to use the Obama-era standard of enforcing AFFH. HUD delayed the rule after numerous local governments were unable to implement policies in time.  Andrew Cuomo’s statement: “As a former HUD Secretary, it is unconscionable to me that the agency entrusted to protect against housing discrimination is abdicating its responsibility, and New York will not stand by and allow the federal government to undo decades of progress in housing rights,” Cuomo said in a statement. “The right to rent or buy housing free from discrimination is fundamental under the law, and we must do everything in our power to protect those rights and fight segregation in our communities.”  Of course overt housing discrimination hasn’t existed for half a century, but that isn’t what this is about.  The issue is zoning ordinances and multi-fam construction. Expect to see more of this sort of thing in blue states as the housing shortage gets worse.

Morning Report: Housing starts still below demand

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2698 16.25
Eurostoxx index 379.67 1.95
Oil (WTI) 66.26 0.05
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.83%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.44%

Stocks are higher this morning as China relaxes ownership restrictions on domestic manufacturers. Bonds and MBS are flat.

We have a lot of Fed-speak today, especially in the morning. Separately, Trump announced two Fed nominees: Richard Clarida of Columbia, to be the Vice Chairman of the Fed and Michelle Bowman, previously a bank executive from Kansas. For all of his criticism of the Fed while on the campaign trail, Trump has nominated pretty much middle-of-the-fairway people to the Board.

Housing starts came in at 1.32 million, better than expectations but still well below what is needed to meet demand. Building Permits came in at 1.35 million. Single family starts fell, while multi rose. Most of the increase was in the Midwest.

Industrial Production rose 0.5% last month, while manufacturing production rose 0.1%. Capacity Utilization increased to 78%. So far we aren’t seeing any tariff effects in the numbers.

Bank of America announced earnings yesterday, and lumped mortgage banking income into the miscellaneous “all other income” category. What an ignominious end to Countrywide. Bank earnings season continues.

Independent mortgage bankers saw profit per loan get cut in half last year as refis dried up and the business got more competitive. Refis fell from 36% of all origination volume to 25%.

Zillow crunched the numbers and looked at the typical homebuyer in 2017. The typical buyer is 40 years old, making 87k. Millennials make up 42% of the cohort. They typically spend about 4.3 months finding a home. Interestingly, despite the size of the investment, most homebuyers only contacted 1 lender. Here is what is important to homebuyers when thinking about a lender:

lender characteristics

The median home was sold in 81 days, and that includes the closing process. This means the typical home was on the market for only 1 month. This is 8 days faster than 2016.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a new report showing how acute the housing shortage is at the low end. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households. Rising home prices and mortgage rates are reducing affordability, however interest rates are still extremely low historically. In the early 80s, a the first year’s mortgage payment consisted of 99% interest, 1% principal.

The IMF forecasts that global growth will hit 3.9% this year, the fastest since 2011, driven by emerging Europe, and the US.