Rosenberg: What passes as normal?

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The article below is a guest contribution by David Rosenberg, Chief Economist and Strategist of Gluskin Sheff & Associates – one of Canada’s pre-eminent wealth management firms.

What passes as normal? Well, today, that is an interesting question.

Just reading the newspapers from the past few days, does More Workers Face Pay Cuts, Not Furloughs (New York Times) get you all hot and heavy over a new cyclical bull market? How about Tech Gadgets Steal Sales From Appliances, Clothing (Wall Street Journal) — hey, who cares if the spin cycle on the washer-dryer don’t work no more, I got me an iPad! Amazing.

Meanwhile, there is excitement in the air over the view that all we have on our hands is a pause that refreshes. Interesting, however, as to how the bond market isn’t buying it, and why should it when MasterCard processed transactions are flat from where they were a year ago.

Nothing we are seeing in a post-bubble credit collapse is normal.

What is “normal” in the context of a post-WWII recovery is that four quarters into it, real GDP expands at over a 6% annual rate. That puts 2.4% into a certain perspective. And, with the revisions now showing the downturn deeper, the level of economic activity in real terms is still 1% below the pre-recession peak. Again, when you look back at 55 years worth of post-war data, what is normal 2½ years after a recession begins is that by now we are at a new peak (on average, breaking above the prior high in GDP by 8%).

Real final sales — representing the rest of GDP (excluding inventories) — came in at a paltry 1.3% annual rate last quarter and has averaged 1.2% since the economy hit rock bottom a year ago in what is clearly the weakest revival in recorded history.

Normally, real final sales is expanding at closer to a 4% annual rate in the year after a recession officially ends. Then again, we haven’t heard anything official just yet about the one that began in December 2007. So, the fact that it is averaging at around one-third the typical pace in the face of unprecedented policy stimulus is rather telling; and frightening.

As for employment, typically (back to 1945), payrolls are 721k above the peak, or 1.8%, fully 30 months after the recession starts, Currently, were are down 7.5 million jobs or 5.4% from the December 2007 peak.

The S&P 500 is locked in this technical battle between 1,000 and 1,200 but the bond market has already said enough is enough as the 10-year Treasury note yield remains stubbornly below 3%.

Moreover, consider the odds of seeing the following:

•  It is a 1-in-20 event to see successive declines in durable goods shipments and orders.
•  To see the CPI down for three months in a row is a 1-in-40 event. To see the PPI falling three months in row carries 1-in-25 odds. But to have both PPI and CPI fall three months in a row is … 1-in-85 event.
•  As for retail sales, posting back-to-back declines during expansionary periods is a 1-of-35 event.
•  As for the deflationary waves hitting the shores of the labour market, a decline in average hourly earnings, as we saw in last month’s payroll data, is a 1-in-50 event.

Wall Street economists and strategists are so busy telling us how normal things are, which is very unsettling. Look at measures of confidence, for crying out loud.

The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index — currently at 67.8 in July — is the lowest since November 2009.

What is the average during recessions? 73.8.

What does it average in economic expansions? Try 90.9.

So you tell us where we are in the cycle.

Ditto for the Conference Board consumer confidence survey. It was 50.4 in July — a five month low.

The average during recessions is 70.4, and 102 in expansions. In other words, it is still 20 points below the recession averages.

The National Federation of Independent Business small business optimism sentiment was 89.0 in June — a three month low. The average during recessions is 91.9. The average during expansions is 100.2. Again, you be the judge.

The consensus is looking for $76 on reported EPS for next year. Let’s assume for a second that write-offs do matter, and that an appropriate multiple in a highly uncertain and more regulated financial and economic backdrop is around 10x or 12x on a reported basis, and you can see why it is that it is quite possibly far too early to overweight the equity market. That day will come — when things are more “normal”.

Source: David Rosenberg, Gluskin Sheff & Associates – Deep Dish with Dave, August 5, 2010.

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1 comment to Rosenberg: What passes as normal?

  • David

    I do agree that we things are not normal. But the data quoted by Rosie needs careful interpretation. research by others recently published would lead one to draw the opposite conclusion to Rosie about potential returns from stocks – I copied this below. I don’t know who’s right, but let’s be aware of both sides of the argument.
    *****************************************
    In his latest MarketWatch column, Hulbert says he recently examined how stocks fared in the month, year, and two-year periods following the release of the Conference Board’s monthly consumer confidence data. His findings: “The biggest monthly jumps in the consumer confidence index were, on average, followed by sub-par returns” for stocks. “Conversely, big drops in the index were typically followed by above-average returns.”
    Hulbert also says that the “starkest patterns” in the data “were between monthly changes in the consumer confidence index and how the stock market had performed in prior months. That is, the stock market and consumer confidence tend to rise and fall together. … In other words, focusing on consumer confidence tells us more about how the stock market has performed in recent weeks than it does about the future. But insofar as consumer confidence tells us anything about the future, it’s that big drops are more positive than negative for the stock market.”
    These findings are similar to the findings of investment manager Kenneth Fisher and finance professor Meir Statman. In a 2002 study, the duo found that declining stock prices are usually followed by declining consumer confidence, but that low consumer confidence readings are followed by strong stock returns more often than by low returns.

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