Jan 092019
 

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By G. Steven Bray

Last Friday’s jobs report was strong. How strong? Well, the number of jobs created was the most for a Dec in 20 years. Average hourly earnings growth remained above 3% for the third consecutive month, and average hours worked also ticked higher. Revisions to previous months also were positive.

It would seem that the report would confirm market fear that the Federal Reserve will continue its rate-hiking campaign unabated. As we discussed last week, markets fear the Fed will choke off economic growth with rate hikes.

However, a couple other economic headliners also attended the party. First was last week’s ISM manufacturing report, which measures the strength of the manufacturing sector. It showed the greatest one month decline since the Great Recession. While the report’s index still shows good sector growth, the report is a leading indicator of economic activity. The jobs report, on the other hand, is a lagging indicator. So, even though the job market is very healthy, the ISM report could portend a coming economic slowdown.

The second headliner was a speech by Fed head Powell. Apparently, he wrote the speech before he saw the jobs report because it was very dovish. Basically, Powell said the Fed will be sensitive to market signals in setting its future rate policy. Well, the stock market loved this and went on a tear. Bond markets, which sank after the jobs report, sank further as investors sold bonds to buy equities. (Selling bonds raises interest rates.)

The question for rates is which version of reality is the correct one: a strong economy inviting further Fed tightening or a slowing economy leading to Fed restraint? Which version markets believe is likely to dictate whether we can hold the rate gains made over the holidays.

So far this week, markets seem to be leaning towards the slowing economy with a hedge. They’ve given up about a quarter of the rate gains and have leveled off waiting for further inspiration. That inspiration may come from this Friday’s inflation report. An elevated reading will likely send rates higher again, but a tame reading – in the 2% range – probably wouldn’t elicit any response.

I see one wildcard that could push rates either way – the China trade talks. I still think positive progress could make markets overlook the ISM reports and lay bets on a stronger economy again.