Spring is Finally Here

by Shawn Narancich, CFA Executive Vice President of Research

Spring is Finally Here  

True to our outlook for the quarter and in-line with anecdotes from the mass of companies reporting first quarter earnings, the U.S. economy appears to be gaining speed after a weather-induced slowdown earlier in the year. While investors were disappointed to learn that first quarter GDP barely budged in the U.S., their disappointment was short-lived, as the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average traded to new highs this week, with the benchmark S&P 500 not far off its best-ever levels. Merger and acquisition deal flow has picked up markedly, signaling greater confidence in corporate America to deploy near-record levels of idle cash. To our surprise, benchmark 10-year Treasury bonds remain remarkably well bid, with yields that held stable after a bullish jobs report likely reflecting continued geopolitical risk in Eastern Europe.

Green Shoots

Investors were encouraged to see that the U.S. jobs market kicked into a higher gear, producing substantially better than expected growth of 288,000 net new jobs in April. Previously reported jobs numbers were revised higher and the unemployment rate fell to a 5-and-one-half-year low of 6.3 percent. Bears will argue that a drop in the labor force participation rate to 36-year lows was responsible for the falling jobless rate, as discouraged workers gave up the hunt for jobs. We would argue that an accelerating economy will produce more job opportunities for disaffected workers, pulling them off the sidelines and tempering the decrease in unemployment. Average hourly earnings remain subdued, rising at the slowest pace of the year, and likely heartening the Fed, which earlier in the week left its QE3 tapering on course for conclusion by year-end. In addition to healthier labor markets, equities are responding favorably to further strengthening of the U.S. Purchasing Managers Index, a benchmark gauge of manufacturing health; it rose for the fourth consecutive month in April and dovetails with the rising levels of manufacturing and construction employment seen in the payroll report. U.S. auto production in March rising at the fastest pace since 2007 is another data point confirming for us the renaissance in domestic manufacturing. Finally, we were encouraged to see March consumption spending increase by nearly 1 percent sequentially, indicating that shoppers are beginning to spend at healthier rates following a brutal winter.

The Urge to Merge

All of a sudden, deal-making abounds: the planned combination of orthopedic device makers Zimmer and Biomet, Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable, GE’s bid for Europe’s Alstom, Exelon’s planned acquisition of fellow utility Pepco Holdings, and Pfizer’s $106 billion bid for British drug maker AstraZeneca. This sample of proposed combinations highlights companies attempting to grow their bottom lines through sales and cost synergies at a point later in the economic cycle, when organic growth is harder to come by.

Only time will tell whether these deals actually get consummated as antitrust issues and nationalistic sentiment could foil at least a couple of them. For investors, the bidding activity shines a positive light on the economy and corporate valuations that we believe will continue to expand.

Late Innings of Earnings Season

Nearly 75 percent of the S&P 500 Index has now reported first quarter earnings. With forecasts that initially called for a decline in earnings now morphing into the reality of low single-digit growth, we observe that corporate America is once again proving its ability to under-promise and over-deliver.

Our Takeaways from the Week

  •  Evidence of an accelerating economy continues to mount as weather-induced weakness fades
  •  Heightened deal activity and better-than-expected corporate earnings leave stocks well bid, trading at near-record highs