SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY REPORT – THE ECONOMY, FED BALANCE SHEET, INTEREST RATES, GOLD
A PROGRESS REPORT: IN SUMMARY
Meet the new economy, very similar to the old economy. While the Trump administration touts the 3% (and moving higher) economy and history making low unemployment rate, real GDP growth came in at 2.3% in Q1, down from the 3.2% peak of Q3’17 and 2.9% in Q4’17. Both of the H2’17 reports were inflated by storm remediation expenses. Keep in mind that government spending, now at a record level, contributes to GDP, so the “organic” economic growth is very similar (within a couple of tenths) to the 2.3% average under the Obama administration, even in spite of deficit spending that is ramping higher. The 3.9% low unemployment rate is a function of a participation rate moving lower, not materially more employment. There is no question that things are a lot better than nine years ago when 600,000 workers were let go each month and there are more companies looking for workers as the necessary skills are often not present. Balancing the picture: while the tax cut has now kicked in, so have higher gasoline prices, and the consumer savings rate is moving higher once again after coming down late last year. Our readers know that we look at restaurant sales as a predictable leading indicator of the general economy. Today’s Miller Pulse headline tells us that April sales were “the highest since 2016”. Unfortunately, the 1.6% sales gain in April was overcome by negative traffic of 0.7%, the 26th straight month of traffic decline. Two year same store sales rose 1.2% in April, vs. 1.1% in March and a 1.8% decline (the storms no doubt) in February. If we consider that prices are rising by a couple of percent per year, traffic is running down 3 or 4% over two years. “Down so far, down looks like up to me” is the country western song writer’s way to put it.
THE FED’S BALANCE SHEET AND INTEREST RATES
We all know that the Fed is normalizing it’s balance sheet, by $10B/month in Q4’17, then $20B/month in Q1’18, now at $30B/month in Q2, going to be $40B/month in Q3 and $50B/month in Q4. These reductions are supposed to be “automatic” as treasury securities and other holdings mature and the balance of the planned decrease is liquidated. We have discussed before how interest rates have steadily moved upward, beginning exactly last October when the normalization started. The planned reduction got behind almost immediately in Q4’17, kept pace through in Q1’18 and April’18, though not making up the shortfall of Q4 and has gotten further behind in early May. Our analysis shows that the cumulative shortfall is about $30B at this point, and of course that can change week to week. It may be no coincidence that interest rates are back to their high this morning, with the ten year at $3.05%, as the Fed tries to reduce by $15B or more this week to catch up. The bottom line is that the Fed’s balance sheet normalization is more than likely to drive interest rates still higher, at least that’s the way it looks so far. This interest rate rise in turn affects housing (see Home Depot stock this morning), auto sales, consumer interest expense, and contributes to a stronger dollar which undermines the general economy further.
GOLD and GOLD MINING STOCKS
The stock market has been up eight days in a row (until today), interest rates (and the dollar) have been firming slowly (more than “firm” this morning) so there continues to be no urgency to look to gold as a “safe haven”. We have pointed out in the past that neither higher interest rates nor a strong dollar are a death knell over time for gold related securities but in the short run a weak dollar and lower interest rates are better. Considering the recent strength in the dollar and the steady march of interest rates higher this year, the fact that gold bullion is virtually unchanged for the year and the mining stocks are down only modestly is not terrible performance. The gold mining companies, which is our primary way to participate in this out of favor asset class, are holding the “real money” in the ground for safekeeping. It’s just a question of time until they bring it north and exchange it for the “colored paper of the day”, at much higher dollars per ounce than today.