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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - The Path We're On

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 5 = 17,060
SPX – 3 = 1973
NAS – 24 = 4416
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.54%
OIL - .74 = 100.17
GOLD – 13.20 = 1294.60
SILV - .19 = 20.82
We’ll start with a couple of quick economic reports.

The Commerce Department reports retail sales increased 0.2% in June. The sales figures from May were revised from a 0.3% increase to a 0.5% increase. The increase in June was below consensus expectations of a 0.6% increase; however sales in April and May were revised higher, so it all levels out and was fairly strong report. Sales were up 4.3% year to year.

The Empire State Manufacturing Survey for July was up 6 points to 25.6, a four year high.

The state of California released its monthly cash report for June; the state’s General Fund ended the fiscal year with a positive cash balance for the first time since 2007, so the state won’t have to borrow to meet all of its payment obligations.

Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen delivered her semiannual Humphrey Hawkins testimony before the Senate Banking Committee today. Tomorrow, Yellen will repeat the process with the House. Yellen said progress has been made to restore the economy to health and strengthen the financial system, yet too many Americans remain unemployed and inflation remains below targets and there hasn’t been enough financial reform.

After prepared remarks, Yellen fielded questions from the senators, and this is where it gets a little interesting. Yellen said, “equity valuations of smaller firms as well as social media and biotechnology firms appear to be stretched.” Some folks felt this was an “irrational exuberance” moment for Yellen. Social media and biotech stocks declined immediately after her comments. Yellen has a good reputation on forecasting. Back in 2006, when she was president of the San Francisco Fed, she gave a speech pushing back against former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan’s claim, with respect to the housing crisis, that the “worst of this may well be over.” Greenspan was wrong, Yellen was right, or at least not as bad as Greenspan.

Yellen said the Fed is still concerned about the housing market: “While this sector has recovered notably from its earlier trough, housing activity leveled off in the wake of last year’s increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.”

The housing market slowed last year when mortgage rates spiked on the possibility of taper. Yellen said that while the rise in rates is “the most obvious explanation for the weakness in the housing market over the past year,” it “seems unlikely that interest rates are the whole story.”

Yellen says the Fed is keeping a close watch on what it sees as potentially excessive risk-taking in the market for leveraged loans, but downplayed the possibility that its policies of ultra-low interest rates could be fueling asset bubbles. Still, there are some areas of financial markets, such as lower rated corporate debt, that are showing looser underwriting standards. Yellen and her Fed colleagues seem generally unfazed by concerns of bubbles and she said in testimony that the prices of real estate, stocks and corporate bonds “remain generally in line with historical norms.”

Yellen said most officials expect rates to start rising in 2015 and to finish the year around 1%. “That gives you a feeling for what participants thought would be appropriate given their projections in June,” she said. “What will actually happen clearly is going to depend on the progress the economy makes.”

Yellen seems pleased with the trajectory of the economy; investors seem complacent. She reiterated the Fed’s view that the economy will continue to grow at a moderate pace, and that the Fed is in no hurry to start increasing short-term interest rates.

All in all, Yellen’s testimony didn’t reveal much new. The Fed has been telegraphing this information for some time. The idea is that they can float information, and if the trial balloon gets shot down, they aren’t stuck in actual policy; if the trial balloon is accepted they can slowly implement the policy. It’s called forward guidance, and it seems to be working. The problem with forward guidance is that the Fed doesn’t know the future, and so they keep the guidance a little on the vague side, and then everybody fills in the blanks based upon their own particular bias.

It is earnings season and a couple of the big banks posted today.

JPMorgan reported a profit of $6 billion, or $1.46 a share, down from $6.5 billion, or $1.60 a share, a year earlier. Goldman Sachs posted net income of $2.04 billion, compared with year-earlier net income of $1.93 billion. Both banks saw share prices move higher after the reports.

These earnings came during a quarter in which fixed-income trading and mortgage refinancing were weak; so in that regard, the banks performed well. More likely the banks managed earnings expectations.

Johnson & Johnson reported higher-than-expected quarterly results on strong sales of its new hepatitis C drug. J&J said it had earned $4.33 billion, or $1.51 per share, in the second quarter. That compared with $3.83 billion, or $1.33 per share, a year earlier. They also raised guidance for the full year.

Intel posted better than expected Q2 revenue and profit; then they raised their Q3 revenue forecast well ahead of expectations; then they announced they would increase their share repurchase program. Intel posted a profit of $2.8 billion, or 55 cents a share, from a year-earlier profit of $2 billion, or 39 cents a share. Gross margin widened to 64.5%, compared with 59.6% in the first quarter. Intel still makes most of its profits from chips for computers; they’re still trying to get into the mobile market, but this past quarter they made more than a half billion in profits making chips for the internet of things, which is basically the idea that all of our mundane possessions will eventually be connected devices.

A study by the International Data Corporation calculates the internet of things market will grow to $7.1 trillion in the next 5 years. More than 1.9 billion once-inert devices are already connected to the internet, from parking meters to home thermostats, and by 2018 that number will top 9 billion.

The Federal Communications Commission website has crashed. Today is the last day to submit comments on the FCC’s proposal to regulate the internet. The proposal at issue would allow internet providers to charge content companies for more direct connections to their customers. These so-called “fast lanes” have sparked a vehement reaction from internet activists, who claim that the new policy could turn the web into a plutocracy where companies that are willing to shell out cash receive premium treatment. As of last week, the FCC had received almost 650,000 comments, mostly in favor of net neutrality; which is another way of saying no toll booths on the information superhighway.

Real highways are another matter. This afternoon the US House approved an $11 billion plan to replenish the federal fund for highway and mass transportation projects, but just through next May. Passage of the bill only puts off a larger debate over raising taxes to pay for long-term infrastructure financing. This was a stop-gap measure, as federal funds were 2 weeks from drying up which would have resulted in work stoppages during the peak of the summer roadwork season.

The Department of Transportation has said that without an agreement in Congress, federal payments to states will begin to slow by the end of the month. Also, the existing two-year law authorizing about $50 billion in highway and transit funding annually expires on Sept. 30; and with it the ability of the government to levy the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax that finances the work.

Longer term plans have been dragged down by disagreements on how to fund projects. The short-term proposal signed today, raises money through an accounting gimmick called pension smoothing, which allows for a delay in the payments that corporations make to their pension funds resulting in a higher corporate tax bill. It’s a temporary, inadequate response to a long-term problem, better than nothing, even if it doesn’t do what it needs to do; which seems to describe everything in Congress these days.

The road ahead may be full of potholes, but on the road of life, most people think the ride will be smooth. A new survey conducted by the National Council on Aging, Untied Healthcare and USA Today finds that older adults are pretty optimistic; 89% say they’re confident they can maintain a higher quality of life through their senior years. On the financial front, 45% of the older group surveyed said they wished they had saved more money; almost one-third (31%) said they wished they had made better investments. The new survey finds more financial optimism than last year, but still almost half (49%) of the 60-and-older respondents say they're concerned that their savings and income will be sufficient to last the rest of their lives. In 2013, 53% expressed that concern.

So what is behind the optimism? The reasons vary, but support of family and friends is at the top, followed by being happy about their living situation, and being in good health.

There seems to be something to the good health part of the optimism equation. The medical journal JAMA released a study today showing people are having fewer strokes and dying less often in the wake of strokes. It’s still a big problem, striking 800,000 people a year and killing 130,000, but the numbers are down.

Another study released this week says better heart health and more education means the onset of Alzheimer’s begins later in life now than 30 years ago in developed nations. One trial in Finland suggested the body can be conditioned to hold off mental decline with gym exercising, good food choices and cognitive training.

It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.

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