A year before the pandemic hit the U.S., consumer sentiment was on the rise, eventually hitting the 101 mark in February 2020 before abruptly falling to 89.1 and then 71.8 over the next two months.
The latest consumer sentiment index declined by 9.4% to 59.1 from 65.2 in April, reversing gains realized last month.
The 59.1 represents a 59% fall from its pre-pandemic peak and is the lowest reading since August 2011.
What is the Consumer Sentiment Index?
As Emily Peck teases, they're b-a-a-c-c-k. ARMs, that is.
Adjustable-rate mortgages, which are initially issued with a lower rate than, say, the 30-year fixed rate and jumps up after a certain time period (usually 1, 3 or 5 years), made up about 11% of all mortgage applications last week.
That’s the highest level since the 2008 Great Recession, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
It’s another way the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes are affecting markets and consumer behavior.
Until recently, 30-year fixed mortgage rates were super low. As of the end of last year, they were hovering just above 3.0%. During the pandemic, they’ve gotten as low as 2.77% last August.
It didn't make sense to take on a riskier adjustable loan; ARM rates have ranged between 2.37% and 2.56% between last August and the end of December.
Now with rates on 30-year fixed loans more than doubling to around 5.3% this week – and ARMs often coming in at more than a point less – homeowners are going for it.
Many readers might remember ARMs from the housing bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent bailout.
Back then, many subprime (unqualified or high-risk) borrowers took out interest-only ARMs with super-low teaser rates that would skyrocket to unaffordable levels – some after 1, 3 or 5 years.
When their monthly payments went up, many of them couldn't pay and wound up in foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Banking regulations and underwriting standards have tightened since then, prohibiting a lot of that kind of stuff.
Friday’s latest government jobs report shows two ongoing trends:
First, with employers adding 428,000 in April, the economic rebound from the brutal pandemic seems to be holding together.
And second, as shown in the chart above, the level of the job rebound since the early days of the pandemic continues to depend on what industry you work in.
On the one hand, April’s seasonally adjusted figures are virtually the same as March’s, according to the Labor Department, with the growth in jobs broad-based across every major industry.
Last fall, aerial drone photos showed dozens of huge, multi-colored container ships backed up outside the Port of LA.
Even then, it looked like inflation was going to be with us for longer than the Fed and many others were predicting at the time.
It’s simply transitory – temporary – they insisted. Turns out, they were wrong, by a long shot.
Inflation, as measured by the Fed’s preferred, if somewhat mythical, metric – the Core Personal Consumption Expenditures Index (i.e., excluding food and energy) – has steadily risen since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
The core PCE consistently hovered at or below the Fed’s 2% target from late 2008 until the 1st quarter of 2021.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic was declared in the U.S., the core PCE was roughly 1.8%.
Since then, it’s risen every quarter, from its low of 1.0% in Q2 2020 to 5.2% at the end of March 2022 – more than double the Fed’s target.
Of course, the broader core Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) rose an even higher 6.5% in March (8.4% when you include food and energy prices).
The other day I said that there’s not going to be any Fed rate hike and then they’re done. No “one and done” sort of thing. I also explained why I think that they’re going to drive down demand for things, by making it harder to borrow money.
Now, I see a LOT of the so called market genius people saying that the Feds will hike into a recession, then have to stop and reverse course and start a new round of cuts and increase their QE. I get it. I really do. It’s been the norm for years…decades actually.
An Economy at a Crossroad
Emily Peck believes the country’s at a new threshold in this period of bad vibes – thanks to mixed economic signals, a new and intensifying war and, yes, continuing Covid weirdness.
Americans’ growing anxiety is rising as Jerome Powell and the Fed prepare to put the brakes on the economy, which could cool off the hot labor market – and further sink stocks and bonds and to a lesser extent precious metals.
Next week, the Fed will almost certainly hike rates by half a percentage point.
Murray Mullen, who runs Mullen Group, a large shipping logistics companies, says: “Inflation…is out of control at the moment.”
One aspect of that are rising food prices, which Emily Peck notes are changing our grocery shopping routine — “already kind of weird after the pandemic pushed more Americans to eat at home.”
High inflation is behaving like a boomerang, spinning and wreaking havoc in all kinds of markets — from cars to housing, from stocks to groceries — and changing the way we live.
An article in the May edition of The Atlantic is a timely and compelling look at how America has splintered — and what'll happen if we don't find a way to patch it.
In the essay, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at NYU’s Stern School of Business, writes:
"In the 20th century, America built the most capable knowledge-producing institutions in human history. In the past decade, though, they got stupider en masse."
All day long we're barraged with this or that data point, this or that hot take, breaking news about this or that mostly underwhelming but nonetheless stress-producing developing story –
Unless, that is, we’re disconnected from a smart phone, cable TV news shows or social media. And these days, there aren’t that many of us who are.
Mike Allen says Haidt's view of America in 2022 is an excuse to “step back and behold what future historians will see.”
In "After Babel," Haidt invokes the Genesis fable of the Tower of Babel, where God is angered by the rampant and excessive pride shown by early humans, then scrambles their languages.
Haidt sees that story as "a metaphor for what is happening not only between Democrats and Republicans, but also within the left and the right, as well as within universities, companies…and even families."
He believes that in the past 10 years — especially 2011-2015 — something "went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth."
Some of what he says happened includes the early internet, which looked like "a boon to democracy" —
"Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common (emphasis added) interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable."
Instead, we got things like the "Like" button, retweets and far too often uncivil comments that have "encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics" and, I’d add, a tendency toward a growing reticence.
The CPI index, it vividly shows how the value of the dollar has steadily dwindled over the last ten years.
As Bloomberg News' Joe Wiesenthal tells us, straightening this line — or at least slowing its downward spiral — is the Fed’s real goal.
Although the U.S. Dollar Index has been inching higher and higher — over the past year, it's risen almost 11%, from 91.05 to its closing today at 100.8 — it's actually been weakening at the fastest pace since the 1980s.
Hey all, we're mid week in a Holiday shortened market week. On Friday, the US markets are closed for Good Friday, and I'm happy about that. If we can close for significant people, we can certainly close for God and son.
Now I'm sure you looked at the headline of the article and figure that I lost my last marble. Deflation? Isn't that where prices of things come down? Indeed it is. And like the housing bubble of 2005 - 2007, this time will probably be no different. ( pay attention to that word probably, I'll come back to it later in this piece)
The biggest cure for high prices, is indeed high prices. When prices of things get too far out of whack, markets have an interesting way of putting them back in whack.
Naturally there's multiple mechanisms at work, but the bottom line is that there always comes a point, where "things" are just too expensive to be purchased. Then, things sit on shelves and ultimately have to be "marked down." This is going to happen again. But, and this is the big elephant... we probably have to endure something akin to a hyper inflation, before we get the big bust and everything falls down.
Right now, we've still got supply chain issues, manufacturing issues, etc. to deal with. Take China and their lockdown of tens of millions of people. NONE of those people are producing products that will end up on Wal-Mart's shelf. So, the products that are there or are in transit, will demand higher prices. No doubt.
But trees don't grow to the moon, and everything eventually reverts to the mean. Always and forever. The twist this time, is that the reasons for the hyper inflation, aren't rooted in the public doing incredibly stupid things. Think back to the "Tulip mania" of the 1600's. I don't know what kind of mushrooms they were snorting during that period, but people were giving up family farms for one tulip bulb. Peak insanity.
Americans’ credit cards got a sweaty workout in February, as monthly consumer debt rose the highest in over a decade.
Matt Phillips believes it could mean that climbing inflation coupled with households’ diminished savings are forcing more people to use plastic.
The Fed's monthly consumer credit report for February came out yesterday, showing that consumer debt — excluding mortgage debt — jumped by $41.8 billion, or 11.3%.
Revolving credit — typically credit cards — rose by a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 21%, up from 4% the prior month. Nonrevolving credit, which includes auto and student loans, was up 8.4%.
With pandemic stimulus payments now a fading memory — and families’ record savings cushion a thing of the past — it seems a no-brainer that out of control inflation has us back to running up our personal debt.
Neil Irwin asks: “When does a report showing a booming job market cause recession alarm bells to start clanging?”
His answer: “When exceptional jobs growth leads bond investors to bet that the Fed will raise rates so aggressively to quash inflation that it will be forced to reverse course later.” That's what happened on Friday.
When the bond yield curve inverts, as it did Friday, it usually means a recession isn’t too far behind.
And although that's being a tad presumptuous at this point, it's clear the Fed is walking a narrowing tightrope.
The Labor Department’s March employment data was strong again, with 431,000 jobs added, positive revisions to January and February numbers and a slightly falling unemployment rate.
More Americans are rejoining the labor market, and wages are showing steady growth.
Just two weeks earlier, Fed chair Jerome Powell said that he sees a "very, very tight labor market, tight to an unhealthy level."
The new numbers, however, suggest it’s becoming even more so, especially around the government’s headline unemployment rate.
That means the jobs numbers amount to full speed ahead for more aggressive Fed tightening, including what looks likely to be the first half-percentage point rate hike in 22 years at the early May policy meeting.
That's why the jobs numbers caused an 8% jump in 2-year Treasury yields, to 2.46% from 2.28% heading into last weekend. Longer-term yields rose by less, with the 10-year ending the day at 2.38%.
When long-term rates are lower than their short-term counterparts, that's called an inversion or an inverted yield curve, to be more precise.
It’s like bond investors are betting that the Fed will end up reversing those near-term rate hikes down the road (i.e., lowering them…again), presumably because of a weakening economy.
The Fed’s favorite inflation metric—the one that has Jay Powell mostly smiling during his REM dreams—showed mounting price pressures in February, as the PCE continued lrising to its highest annualized level since 1983.
Including gas and groceries (broken out by the government ostensibly because of their higher volatility), the headline Personal Consumption Expenditures index (the source of Powell’s nocturnal smiles) jumped 6.4% year over year.
Excluding food and energy prices, the so-called “core” PCE increased 5.4% from the same period in 2021.
By the way, the only reason I continue to mention the core PCE—or the core CPI for that matter—is because some readers like to know what these government-reported, nuanced numbers are doing.
So, if they’re good enough for the Fed, they're good enough for me (yes, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek).
Even though the Fed has started hiking interest rates to rein in inflation running at a 4-decade high, consumers and investors think price rises will be tough to slow.
A new reading of consumer sentiment on Friday from the University of Michigan confirms that Americans’ inflation expectations remain at their highest level since 1981—and continue to grow.
The survey’s chief economist Richard Curtin observed that inflation is the chief culprit in consumers’ rising pessimism, with expectations of a 5.4% rise for the year ahead.
Russia's ruble has rebounded in recent weeks, as the Kremlin patched together an aggressive defense of its fiat currency.
The ruble was valued (vs. the U.S. dollar) at 80.41 on February 23, the day before Putin’s invasion. It skyrocketed to 131.50 on March 7. It plunged to 90.72 on the Ides of March (the 15th). And it opened today at 94.75.
Matt Phillips reports that Moscow’s latest attempt to shore up support came in the form of a direct demand from His Rogueness (Putin) that the EU pay for natural gas with rubles instead of dollars or euros.
It's a not-so-veiled effort by Russia to create demand for its struggling currency—with the ruble jumping 8% on the news.
Widespread sanctions imposed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February have hammered the ruble, wiping out 90% of its value against the dollar at times.
Moscow took measures—like doubling interest rates, halting currency trading, and demanding that Russian companies exchange their foreign earnings for rubles—that slowed the bungie jump and prevented a crash.
But Putin's latest scheme has already been called a breach of contract by Germany, the eurozone’s largest buyer of Russian natural gas.
If the breach prompts a full rupture with Europe, which buys 40% of its gas from Russia, the ruble will likely take another tumble.
Such a break, however, would also make Europe's energy crisis a lot worse. To wit, European natural gas prices jumped 30% after Putin made his latest demand.