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:

AHE vs PCE

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.

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Morning Report: Stocks sell off as 10 year breaches 3% level

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2626.5 -9
Eurostoxx index 379.58 -3.53
Oil (WTI) 67.53 -0.22
10 Year Government Bond Yield 3.02%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.59%

Stocks are lower this morning after yesterday’s interest rate-driven sell-off. Bonds and MBS are down.

The 10 year breached the 3% mark yesterday, which served as a catalyst for a substantial stock market sell-off. Of course 3% is just a round number, but it is the highest rate since 2014. Some pros are looking for a global slowdown in the economy, which could make some corporate borrowers vulnerable. We certainly appear to be in the late stages of a credit cycle. Junk-rated bond issuance has been on a tear over the past few years, reaching $3 trillion as yield-starved investors have had to reach into the lower credits to make their return bogeys. That said, corporate bond spreads are still at historical lows, (investment grade spreads are still half of what they were as recently as early 2016. Let’s also not forget that much of the bond issuance over the past 8 years went to refinance old debt at higher interest rates – in other words it was a net positive for these companies.

We are now going to see just how much of the huge rally in financial assets over the last decade was due to the inordinate amount of stimulus coming out of the Fed. As stocks now have to compete with Treasuries, some changes in asset allocations are to be expected and the riskier assets are going to bear the brunt of the selling. Keep things in perspective, however. Interest rate cycles are measured in generations.

100 years of interest rates

One of the benefits of QE has been to goose asset prices (which was kind of the whole point). Increasing people’s net worth would increase spending and therefore increase GDP. It probably worked, however that hasn’t been costless. One of the problems with increasing real estate prices is that it shuts people out from places where there is opportunity (California in particular). If you already own property in CA and have been experiencing torrid home price appreciation, you can move since your increased home equity can be used to purchase another expensive property. But if you live in the Midwest were home price appreciation has been less, you might not be able to take that job in San Francisco since you can’t afford to live there. That said, negative equity was probably a bigger problem and home price appreciation did mitigate that issue.

Mortgage Applications fell 0.2% last week as purchases were flat and refis were down 0.3%. Conforming rates increased 6 basis points, while government rates increased 1. ARMs decreased to 6% of total applications. A flattening yield curve makes ARMs less and less attractive relative to 30 year fixed mortgages.

Acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney has made some changes at the Bureau. First, he is ending the pursuit of auto lenders, which Dodd-Frank prohibited. The Cordray CFPB did an end-around by going after the big banks behind some of the auto financing, and that will end. Second, Mulvaney will no longer make public the complaint database against financial services companies, saying that “I don’t see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.” Finally, he plans to change the name from the CFPB to the BCFP. All of this is in keeping with Mulvaney’s commitment to follow the law and go no further.