The tug-of-war is officially on as investors try to decipher whether good news is good or bad for the stock market? On the surface, the monthly January jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) appeared to be welcomed, positive data. Total jobs added for the month tallied +257,000 (above the Bloomberg consensus of +230,000) and the unemployment rate registered 5.7% thanks to the labor participation rate swelling during the month (see chart below). More specifically, the number of people looking for a job exceeded one million, which is the largest pool of job seekers since 2000.
Initially the reception by stocks to the jobs numbers was perceived positively as the Dow Jones Industrial index climbed more than 70 points on Friday. Upon further digestion, investors began to fear an overheated employment market could lead to an earlier than anticipated interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve, which explains the sell-off in bonds. The yield on the 10-Year Treasury proceeded to spike by +0.13% before settling around 1.94% – that yield compares to a recent low of 1.65% reached last week. The initial euphoric stock leap eventually changed direction with the Dow producing a -180 point downward reversal, before the Dow ended the day down -62 points for the session.
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The same confusion circling the good jobs numbers has also been circulating around lower oil prices, which on the surface should be extremely positive for the economy, considering consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of our country’s economic output. Lower gasoline prices and heating bills means more discretionary spending in the pockets of consumers, which should translate into more economic activity. Furthermore, it comes as no surprise to me that oil is both figuratively and literally the lubricant for moving goods around our country and abroad, as evidenced by the Dow Jones Transportation index that has handily outperformed the S&P 500 index over the last 18 months. While this may truly be the case, many journalists, strategists, economists, and analysts are nevertheless talking about the harmful deflationary impacts of declining oil prices. Rather than being viewed as a stimulative lubricant to the economy, many of these so-called pundits point to low oil prices as a sign of weak global activity and an omen of worse things to come.
This begs the question, as I previously explored a few years ago (see Good News=Good News?), is it possible that good news can actually be good news? Is it possible that lower energy costs for oil importing countries could really be stimulative for the global economy, especially in regions like Europe and Japan, which have been in a decade-long funk? Is it possible that healthier economies benefiting from substantial job creation can cause a stingy, nervous, and scarred corporate boardrooms to finally open up their wallets to invest more significantly?
Interest Rate Doom May Be Boom?
Quite frankly, all the incessant, never-ending discussions about an impending financial market Armageddon due to a potential single 0.25% basis point rate hike seem a little hyperbolic. Could I be naively whistling past the graveyard? From my perspective, although it is a foregone conclusion the Fed will have to increase interest rates above 0%, this is nothing new (I’m really putting my neck out there on this projection). Could this cause some volatility when it finally happens…of course. Just look at what happened to financial markets when former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke merely threatened investors with a wind-down of quantitative easing (QE) in 2013 and investors had a taper tantrum. Sure, stocks got hit by about -5% at the time, but now the S&P 500 index has catapulted higher by more than +25%.
Looking at how stocks react in previous rate hike cycles is another constructive exercise. The aggressive +2.50% in rate hikes by former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan in 1995 may prove to be a good proxy (see also 1994 Bond Repeat?). After suffering about a -10% correction early in 1994, stocks rallied in the back-half to end the year at roughly flat.
And before we officially declare the end of the world over a single 0.25% hike, let’s not forget that the last rate hike cycle (2004 – 2006) took two and a half years and17 increases in the targeted Federal Funds rate (1.00% to 5.25%). Before the rate increases finally broke the stock market’s back, the bull market moved about another +40% higher…not too shabby.
Lastly, before writing the obituary of this bull market, it’s worth noting the yield curve has been an incredible leading indicator and currently this gauge is showing zero warnings of any dark clouds approaching on the horizon (see chart below). As a matter of fact, over the last 50 years or so, the yield curve has turned negative (or near 0%) before every recession.
As the chart above shows, the yield curve remains very sloped despite modest flattening in recent quarters.
While many skeptics are having difficulty accepting the jobs data and declining oil prices as good news because of rate hike fears, history shows us this position could be very misguided. Perhaps, once again, this time around good news may actually be good news.