Over the past few weeks, corporate earnings across the globe have been showing signs of recovery. Citigroup’s Global Earnings Revision Index has been climbing for three weeks in a row, encouraging given the economic challenges facing the world. While this trend is positive, its path will be unpredictable due to COVID-19 related shut down and re-openings in several key economies. The recovery in corporate earnings, if it persists, could alleviate the tragic stress in labor markets and help reinvigorate economic activity heading into 2021. Fiscal support is building momentum with the European Union’s 750 billion Euro stimulus plan (discussed last week) and the anticipated fourth phase of US stimulus. It does remain to be seen if the enormous amount of spending, both fiscal and monetary, will have a lasting impact.
On Thursday, July 16th, the US Census Bureau released Retail Sales figures and month-over-month growth registered a nice surprise — 7.5%, well above the consensus estimate of 5.5%. The prior month’s figures were also revised upward. We see this as an obvious reflection of the reopening of the US economy and pent up demand. But, we don’t read much into the positive monthly gain versus the consensus estimate because economists have never had to forecast under conditions that can be considered “lock-down uncertainty”. What we do find encouraging and more interesting is that the reported annual growth rate was 1.1%. At this time last year the US economy was on firm footing, and yet Retail Sales are modestly above those levels today. While the trajectory of sales growth is a relief, we would not be surprised to see some sluggishness emerge as we collectively digest the flurry of initial purchasing pre-quarantine and new virus spikes elicit further lockdown measures. [chart courtesy US Census Bureau, Bloomberg LP (c) 2020]
Economic fault lines run deep across America. Many of these lines have been laid bare as a consequence of the economic crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 outbreak, but the lines were there long before, and will continue long after. Those sitting on the bottom rungs of the prosperity ladder not only were among the most vulnerable as business, trade and service ground to a halt, they are in the worst position to participate in the recovery. Access to capital is critical to household and business formation, maintenance and growth. As recently as 2017, the last time the FDIC released its biennial national survey, 18.7% of American households were underbanked (relying on payday lenders, rent-to-own, pawn shops, refund anticipation loans, and other non-bank resources), and a full 6.5%, or nearly 8.5 million households, were completely unbanked. Without access to the financial infrastructure enjoyed by nearly 70% of the population, the road ahead will be difficult if not impossible, and investing in community financing through CDFIs and other non-traditional conduits will be critical to an inclusive recovery.
A key contrarian indicator sustains bullish readings, at least for the time being. The American Association of Individual Investor bull-bear spread survey continues to post negative readings, which is not surprising given the dire news on the US economic front. The labor market alone shows initial jobless claims approaching 40 million. Positive economic indicators are rare, yet US stocks continue to rebound, establishing higher highs and higher lows. Equity investors, for now, are looking past day-to-day bad news and towards the recovery as the country re-opens. There are still risks as new consumption patterns emerge and the potential for a second wave of COVID-19 looms later in the year, but the repatriation of American manufacturing and key service functions will likely lead to higher median wages, greater sustainability, and stronger national security. These long-term trends, in our view, will continue to attract the marginal global investment dollar to the US capital markets. [Chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2020]