Despite serious turmoil in the Middle East and ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, blue-chip stocks have pushed to new record highs amid upbeat quarterly earnings and encouraging economic data. As Wall Street frets about why interest rates are so low, investors are also enjoying what has turned into a nice coupon-plus return environment for bonds this year, one that could continue to confound those expecting higher rates. Indeed, the CPI report out this week provides evidence that a 2.1 percent inflation rate may trend lower over the next few months if commodity prices continue to moderate.
Gasoline prices accounted for two-thirds of the June index increase, and with pump prices now on their way back down, consumers should expect to get a break at the pump and investors a break on headline inflation. Just as important, natural gas prices have fallen precipitously in the past month due to better-than-expected storage refills and grain prices falling under the expectation of record harvests this fall. With wage gains remaining muted and investment-grade bond yields at surprisingly low levels in Europe, bond investors expecting materially higher rates could be surprised by a rate environment that stays lower for longer. We see an environment of muted inflation and accelerating U.S. economic gains creating a profitable backdrop for equity investors.
A Jobs Renaissance?
Supporting the notion of improving economic fundamentals was this week’s jobless claims number, which breached the psychologically important 300,000 level to the downside. U.S. claims trickled in at a rate of just 284,000 in the past week, a level investors haven’t witnessed in over eight years. This bullish claims number and the downward trending four-week moving average lend credence to the strong payroll numbers reported in June, while increasing our confidence that July’s report will be another good one.
As more people find work, consumption spending should increase, but as the results from McDonalds and its former subsidiary Chipotle Mexican Grill showed this week, where consumers choose to spend their new-found incomes can be as different as, well, burgers and burritos. McDonalds disappointed by reporting falling same-store sales, but Chipotle announced a 17.3 percent surge, the likes of which it hasn’t seen since 2006. Store traffic at the Golden Arches has lagged and McDonald’s contends with a lower income demographic for which pricing is always an issue. In contrast, Chipotle’s higher income constituents are more likely to accept occasional menu price hikes as they did in the second quarter, without chasing away customers. Indeed, Chipotle benefitted from a trifecta of good fortune – higher prices, better mix, and more store traffic that collectively produced 24 percent earnings growth. On much better-than-expected sales and earnings, Chipotle’s stock surged 12 percent while McDonalds’ shares fell 1 percent.
With about half of the S&P 500 having reported second quarter results, approximately 75 percent of companies are delivering better-than-expected earnings, and 65 percent are also besting top-line estimates. As a result, earnings projections for the benchmark index that a month ago predicted 4 percent growth for the quarter now stand at 6 percent.
Our Takeaways from the Week
- Despite stiff geopolitical headwinds, U.S. stocks continue to forge new highs
- A majority of companies reporting so far are delivering better than expected second quarter sales and earnings