Positive eco Data in the US Economy – As Good as Described?

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Major US stock indices lost almost 5% on Thursday and the question arises whether this is the beginning of a bear market. The dynamics of key indicators of consumer activity and the US labor market move in positive direction, which justifies the stability of the stock market in the near future, but as will be discussed in the article, state support (and the associated increase in moral hazard) creates the basis for negative surprises in the future, closer to autumn.

Let’s start from Google Mobility data for the US: mobility in retail and recreations is just -21% below the norm, mobility associated with visiting workplaces is -14% below the norm. The trend in both indicators is positive and is due to the fact that the states are gradually lifting restrictions. Earlier, Stephen Mnuchin hinted that lockdowns are too expensive measure to fight the epidemic, hence even a sharp increase in new cases won’t be a clear-cut trigger for a new market sell-off since we won’t be able anymore to use the data as a proxy of the threat of a new lockdown, which undoubtedly would be a major shock for the economy.

Mortgage applications

Mortgage applications have been rising for eight consecutive weeks, outpacing growth in 2018 and 2019:

Undoubtedly, the growth is fueled to some extent by ultra-soft monetary policy of the Fed, as mortgage rates, although reluctantly, are testing record lows.

The dynamics of mortgage applications correlates with consumer confidence, as consumers make decisions based on their financial positions (wealth) and expected future income. Lockdowns basically protected savings because of limited consumption ability. Now consumers are “fooled” by the state support and consumer sentiments are doomed to change erratically because of that. However, while generous social protection programs are in place, no major shifts are expected.

Car sales

Recent data also shows that demand for cars in the US rebounded after sharp decline in April:

In 2009, there was a similar rebound that coincided with the moment the economy emerged from the recession. That rebound probably spoke of a shift in expectations, which often form a turning point in economic activity. The rebound now is probably the “residual pent-up demand” accumulated during the lockdown. But we certainly need more data to confirm this. In my opinion, the same situation as with mortgage applications, state support accounts for much of the rebound.

Labor market. Unemployment report.

It caught off-guard many economists but now, retrospectively, taking into account the latest data on unemployment benefits (negative dynamics in both initial and continuing claims), we can say that indeed, new jobs were partially inflated thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program (the loans de facto became “grants” to firms to save jobs), primarily by small firms which use low skilled-labor (hence low costs of hiring and layoff). The NFIB survey of small businesses showed that 73% of the respondents (small businesses) asked for money and 93% received them. This increase in moral hazard creates very ambiguous situation with jobs; in the future, surprises are possible because if firms face lack of demand, they will be forced to increase layoffs.

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