Sunday, March 20, 2005

Economic Week in Review

ECRI Weekly Leading Index 135.90 +.52%

Empire Manufacturing for March rose to 19.90 versus estimates of 19.61 and a reading of 19.19 in February. The New York Fed described the March reading of 19.6 "indicated another month of solid improvement in manufacturing conditions." The index of expectations for the next six months rose to 44.1 from 40 in February, Bloomberg reported. The New York Fed's employment gauge rose to 11.4 from 8.9 in February. "The best sign of manufacturing strengthening is the surprise we saw in manufacturing payroll, because they're not going to add jobs unless they're planning to expand production," said Anthony Chan, senior economist at JP Morgan Fleming Asset Management.

Advance Retail Sales for February rose .5% versus estimates of a .6% increase and an upwardly revised .3% gain in January. Retail Sales Less Autos for February rose .4% versus estimates of a .8% increase and an upwardly revised 1.0% gain in January. US retail sales increased in February for a third month as consumers bought more from department stores, auto dealers and electronics outlets, Bloomberg said. "We've got a good deal of momentum in consumer spending," said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities. Spending has been fueled by the addition last year of 2.2 million jobs and a 5.7% rise in wages and salaries, Bloomberg said. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kohl's posted their biggest sales gain in nine months in February, industry reports showed earlier this month.

Net Foreign Security Purchases for January rose at the fastest pace in almost 2 years to $91.5B versus estimates of $58.5B and $60.7B in December. The monthly average for the last 3 years is $58 billion. The US needs to draw about $55 billion a month to fund the current-account deficit and keep the value of the dollar steady, according to Bloomberg calculations. "It shows people are still finding value in the US and that the US is a good place to put their money," said George Goncalves, a fixed-income strategist for Banc of America. The biggest net increases were in holdings of Treasury securities and in government agency bonds, Bloomberg said. Most of the gain in Treasuries came from Caribbean buyers, which analysts tie to hedge funds, Bloomberg reported. "Foreigners are still finding the US appealing and have faith the US economy will perform well compared to other economies in coming years," said Sean Callow, senior currency strategist at IDEAGlobal. Fed Chairman Greenspan told Congress on March 2 "there is very little evidence foreigners are starting to sell US dollar assets," Bloomberg reported.

Business Inventories for January rose .9% versus estimates of a .9% increase and a .2% gain in December. The inventory-sales ratio, a measure of how long supplies can be expected to last at the current level of demand, held at 1.3 months, matching a record low, suggesting more factory orders and production will underpin the economy, Bloomberg said. "This supports the idea that businesses are gaining confidence and adding to inventories," said Peter Kretzmer, an economist at Banc of America. "After a three year delay, businesses are finally re-leveraging their vastly improved balance sheets, and that incremental steps are being taken to add to jobs, capital expenditure and inventory cycles," said John Herrmann, director of economic commentary at Cantor Viewpoint.

The NAHB Housing Market Index for March was unchanged, near a five-year high, at 69 versus estimates of 68 and a reading of 69 in February. Job growth may help drive sales this year, even as higher mortgage rates keep the housing market from topping 2004's record levels, Bloomberg said. Freddie Mac last week raised its estimate for 2005 home price appreciation to 8% from 7.8%, Bloomberg reported. "Demand for new homes still exceeds supply in many markets, while financing conditions remain quite favorable and jobs and incomes are on the rise," said David Seiders, chief economist at the NAHB. Finally, the group's gauge of buyer traffic rose to 51 from 50 in February, Bloomberg reported.

The Current Account Balance for 4Q fell to -$187.9B versus estimates of -$183.0B and -$165.9B in 3Q. "Short of an unlikely growth miracle in other nations or a slump in US demand for goods, the deficit seems destined to continue to widen," said Joshua Shapiro, chief US economist at MFR Inc. Other economists including Fed Chairman Greenspan say the deficit will probably correct with limited disruption for the economy, Bloomberg reported. The deficit "is being easily funded," said Lara Rhame, a currency strategist at CSFB. "There is resilient appetite for US assets around the world. The funding concerns are over done," Rhame said.

Housing Starts for February rose to 2195K, a 21-year high, versus estimates of 2040K and 2183K in January. Building Permits for February fell to 2074K versus estimates of 2067K and 2132K in January. "Interest rates are low, the job market is strong, incomes are rising and that makes for a red-hot housing market," said Brian Wesbury, chief investment strategist at Clay More Investments. "Rising interest rates this year will temper the housing market but we are still likely to operate at one of the highest levels in history," Wesbury said. "For each of the five weeks since the end of our record-breaking first quarter, non-binding deposits, a precursor to contracts, have been the highest or second highest per community in those five weeks in the last ten years," said Robert Toll, president of Toll Brothers.

Industrial Production for February rose .3% versus estimates of a .4% gain and a .1% increase in January. Capacity Utilization for February rose to 79.4%, the most since 2000, versus estimates of 79.2% and 79.2% in January. "There is good, solid growth with the production side of the economy following strong domestic demand," said Peter Kretzmer, a senior economist at Banc of America. GDP may now expand at a 4% annual pace in the first quarter, according to the median estimate of 66 economists in a monthly Bloomberg survey. That compare with 3.8% in the final quarter of last year and a previous forecast of 3.6% for the first quarter.

Initial Jobless Claims for last week fell to 318K versus estimates of 315K and 328K the prior week. Continuing Claims fell to 2647K, the lowest in almost 4 years, versus estimates of 2668K and 2695K prior. "This economy is beginning to convince executives to hire," said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. Productivity gains aren't enough to meet increased demand from consumers and businesses, economists said. Manpower, the temporary help firm, said almost a third of companies it surveyed in January planned to increase staff in the April-June quarter and only 7% planned reductions, Bloomberg reported.

Leading Indicators for February rose .1% versus estimates of a .1% increase and a .3% decline in January. The index rose in February for the third time in four months, helped by an improved job market and higher stock prices, Bloomberg said. The report suggests growing employment and increased wealth will keep people spending and the economy growing, Bloomberg reported. "The economy is not too hot, not too cold," said Steven Einhorn, a partner at Omega Advisors. "The leading indicator, and others, suggests trend-like real growth of around 3.5% after more than 4% this quarter," Einhorn said.

The Philadelphia Fed. Index for March fell to 11.4 versus estimates of 20.0 and a reading of 23.9 in February. However, a gauge measuring the six-month outlook of manufacturers increased to the highest level this year, Bloomberg said. "The American economy still has some quite positive momentum, so the slowdown in manufacturing should find a base fairly soon," said David Sloan, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc. "We are moving back to good, solid, sustainable growth rates though not spectacular growth rates like we had before," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. The prices paid for raw materials component of the index dropped to 29.7, the lowest since November 2003, Bloomberg said.

The Import Price Index for February rose .8% versus estimates of a .6% increase and a .7% gain in January. Compared with a year earlier, the price of imported oil was up almost 30%, Bloomberg reported. "It's going to be one more signal to the Fed that inflation pressures are brewing," said Michael Englund, chief economist at Action Economics. A weak dollar, combined with increased US demand, "suggests steady upward pressure" on import prices in coming months, Englund said.

The preliminary Univ. of Mich. Consumer Confidence Index for March fell to 92.9 versus estimates of 94.9 and a reading of 94.1 in February. US consumer confidence unexpectedly fell for a third month in March as rising gasoline prices and negative commentary on the problems of Social Security weighed on sentiment, Bloomberg said. The average US price for regular-grade gasoline rose to a record $2.055 a gallon on March 16, according to AAA, the largest US travel organization. "It seems that despite the improvement in the labor market conditions the consumer is worried about the rising gasoline prices," said Elisabeth Denison, a US economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. Confidence is still above the 88.1 average reading since 1978, Bloomberg said.

BOTTOM LINE: Overall, last week's economic data were mildly positive. Measures of manufacturing activity were mixed, however the decline in the Philly Fed is a bit worrisome. At this point, I am assuming activity is slowing, but not significantly. Retail Sales continue to impress, even with higher gas prices. Rising incomes, better job prospects and relatively low interest rates should continue to spur consumer spending throughout the year. I expect gas prices to peak within the next 2 months and begin heading lower which should help in the second half of the year. The sharp increase in Net Foreign Security Purchases is a big positive. Bears pointed to the fact that some of the increase was a result of hedge fund, or "hot money", purchases from the Caribbean. However, in my opinion this is a positive considering that in general hedge fund managers had been the most worried about inflation and rising long-term interest rates. The fact that Business Inventories had a healthy rise, yet the inventory-sales ratio stayed at record lows is positive. This should result in continuing inventory rebuilding, adding to economic growth. I continue to view the housing market as healthy is most parts of the country and expect an increase in sales as weather improves from one of the wettest winters in US history. The labor market continues to improve at a modest stable pace which is good for the consumer and the stock market. While the Leading Indicates rose in February, I expect a decline in March on weakening consumer sentiment and declines in stock values. I continue to expect the Current Account Balance to improve in the second half of the year and become less of an issue for the bears. Measures of inflation were mixed last week, which is a positive considering the steep rise in commodity prices so far this year. I expect inflation readings to begin to decelerate again during the second half of the year. Consumer prices for 2005 will likely rise around the 3.0% average of the last 40 years. Finally, the ECRI Weekly Leading Index rose .52% to 135.90 and is at new cycle highs.

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