Don’t Look Back!
As investors question the underlying strength of the U.S. economy, stocks are consolidating gains and bonds are defying Wall Street expectations for yields to rise. Like drivers gawking at a car wreck as they drive past, market participants once again revisited the surprisingly poor economic start to a 2014 that most thought would bring faster economic growth instead of the worst quarterly performance since the depths of the Great Recession. Reasons for the 2.9 percent contraction in first quarter U.S. GDP have been widely discussed, but the cold, inclement weather and late Easter don’t negate the math of such a poor start to the year, and its impact on full year estimates that economists are now scrambling to reduce.
Back on Track
Relatively healthy payroll growth, rising retail sales, and healthy manufacturing indicators bely the wreckage of first quarter GDP, but this week’s surprisingly poor May personal consumption numbers prolong the debate about how strong the economy really is. Few indicators are as simple as they first seem and this number is no exception, being dampened by accounting for the Affordable Care Act that economists first thought would boost healthcare spending. As it turns out, this component of consumer spending actually fell in May, and with the Fed’s preferred inflation measure ratcheting up to 1.8 percent year-over-year, real consumption spending used to compute the GDP number actually dropped sequentially. So what’s an investor to believe? Notwithstanding the disappointing May number, we expect Q2 consumption spending to increase at a faster pace and look for better capital spending and housing investment to produce GDP growth somewhere in the 3-4 percent range. If achieved, this level of growth will be the best in a couple years and should go a ways toward allaying concerns about the pace of economic expansion. In this environment, we expect bond yields to rise.
Clear as Condensate?
The U.S. energy industry was jolted this week by surprise news that the Commerce Department has granted approval for two energy companies to begin exporting very light crude oil known as condensate. The U.S. energy renaissance has boosted domestic oil production by over 70 percent since the lows of 2008 and, owing to the nature of unconventional development, an increasing amount of the liftings are of the clear variety. The challenge for U.S. refiners has been to revamp their capital intensive facilities to accommodate this light production after years of gearing up for heavier Mexican and South American imports. The reaction on Wall Street was dramatic, as stocks of oil producers rallied and refining stocks tanked. If the first government approvals this week turn out to be a harbinger of additional exports to come, benchmark WTI oil prices should increase relative to the global benchmark Brent. Accordingly, the producers would realize higher prices at the expense of the refiners, which have benefited greatly from the discount at which they buy U.S. light crude. Only time will tell whether additional export approvals are granted, but the risk for refining investors is not only that their feedstock costs increase, but that investments made in recent years to process lighter grade crudes fail to pay off.
Our Takeaways from the Week
- Q2 comes to a close, with stocks hovering near all-time highs as investors assimilate disappointing headline economic news into full year estimates
- Energy stocks are in focus following initial government approval for light crude oil exports