Saturday, April 13, 2013

Recent Data Weak But The Economy is Still On Track

The markets have been concerned over the state of the economy recently. The double whammy of a set of weaker Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reports and disappointing payrolls numbers have had the the bears coming out. Although the direction of the market is not really my concern – I’m market neutral -- the direction of the economy is of great interest. There is more reason to be bullish than bearish on the economy. If you are one of those investors that thinks stocks go up with the economy, then now is not the time to lose your nerve.

Now payrolls?

It doesn’t take much to get television journalists shouting, and the last decade has given them more than their fair share of things to worry about. The fact that this fragile psyche also exists in the corporate world shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Discerning investors need to adopt a calmer perspective.

I’m going to start with non-farm payrolls. The key point to understand is just how volatile these numbers are. Moreover, they are subject to significant revisions. In fact, it is rather bizarre that the most followed dataset in the US economy is also one of the most unreliable. I blame Alan Greenspan because he would always refer to it as being the best indicator. This article expresses some of the general underlying issues. The truth is that the payrolls data is usually unreliable from point to point. It is much more useful to take a longer term view.

For example, here are three month averages for the total non-farm payrolls taken from the Bureau of Labor Studies.

There is nothing really unusual about mini troughs and peaks, but overall job growth is still strong. It hasn’t been strong enough to fully gain back the jobs lost in 2008-2009, but that is another matter. We are discussing the direction of the economy.

Furthermore, a quick look at the American Staffing Association Index shows that the index is currently stronger than it has been for over five years.

On a micro level, Robert Half International (NYSE: RHI) always gives good color on conditions. In the company's latest set of earnings, Europe was declared as remaining weak, but its US staffing branches were reported as seeing good demand, particularly in technology and accounting. However, it also stated that the share of temporary jobs (as opposed to permanent) in this cycle was double that of previous recoveries. This may be great news for Robert Half, but it also goes a long way to explaining the sense of ease that is reported over employment conditions in the US.


The tendency is to look at the ISM data on a monthly basis and then put it out of context. The recent numbers were superficially disappointing, but I think they represented more of a natural correction than any kind of trend change.

Here is the manufacturing data from the Institute of Supply Management for new orders, employment and the headline PMI data.

Note how periods of political uncertainty cause a temporary slowing of orders, which then snaps back as the pipeline build-up gets cleared, following which there is a natural mini correction. I would argue that we are in a period like that now (which has been exacerbated by the sequester), but history suggests that the economy will keep growing -- albeit at the slow pace it has been in recent years.

Investors also need to appreciate that any number above 50 for the index indicates growth. Furthermore, the employment index (it is much harder to turn off employment plans than it is to go slow on new orders or inventory) is still rising well in 2013.

On the micro level, the short-term weakness in the ISM data in December was picked up in the reporting of something like MSC Industrial Direct (NYSE: MSM). Its end demand lacks visibility and is subject to sudden short term changes. Indeed, it reported that its markets were in near ‘paralysis’ in December, and this mirrors the temporary weakness in the ISM data. Furthermore its commentary in its recent results revealed a bifurcation within the metalworking sector. Aerospace and autos are doing fine but general industrial engineering is still soft, with customers delaying activity. Nevertheless if the stock sells off aggressively I think it could be worth a look. Its sales are subject to short lead teams, and if you think the ISM data will improve then this will eventually feed through into MSC's numbers.

Moreover, if we look at General Electric’s (NYSE: GE) recent set of earnings, the surprise was on the upside. Of course, its revenues are a lot more internationally focused than MSC’s will be and its strength in the quarter is an indication that the temporary weakness was really about the US and political considerations, rather than any kind of global drop off in manufacturing. The interesting thing about GE is that--although we know there is pressure on global public spending--it is exposed to areas of government spending (emerging market health care, utilities, transportation etc) that are still being invested in. If the recent results confirm this then the stock is worth a look.

The bottom line

I don’t think the recent data is any cause for significant concern unless it is confirmed by another few months weakness. Short term thinking never did anyone any favors in investing, and the underlying trends for the US economy remain positive. Looking out for stocks that might get beat up with undue short term pessimism seems a good approach to me.