For the holiday-shortened week, after four weeks of solid gains the major benchmarks ended the week flat. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added just 30 points last week ending the week at 24,737, a gain of 0.1%. The technology-heavy NASDAQ Composite rose 7 points, also up 0.1%. By market cap, the large cap S&P 500 finished down -0.2%, while the mid cap S&P 400 rose 0.1% and the small cap Russell 2000 remained unchanged.
In international markets, Canada’s TSX rose 0.4%, while the United Kingdom’s FTSE 100 finished down -2.3%. Major markets on Europe’s mainland finished the week in the green with France’s CAC 40 adding 1%, while Germany’s DAX and Italy’s Milan FTSE adding 0.7% and 0.5%, respectively. In Asia, China’s Shanghai Composite rose 0.2% and Japan’s Nikkei added 0.5%. As grouped by Morgan Stanley Capital International, emerging markets rose 1.6%, while developed markets finished up just 0.1%.
Precious metals bounced back this week with Gold rising 1.2%, or $15.50 to finish the week at $1298.10 per ounce. Likewise, Silver rose 1.95% to finish the week at $15.70 per ounce. Oil took a break after three weeks of solid gains finishing the week down -0.65% at $53.69 per barrel. The industrial metal copper, seen by some analysts as a barometer of global economic health due to its variety of uses, rose for a third consecutive week up 0.4%.
For the first time in over 50 years, the number of applicants for new unemployment benefits fell below 200,000. The Labor Department reported initial jobless claims fell by 13,000 to 199,000 in the week ended January 19th. The reading is the lowest it’s been since November 15, 1969 and underscores the strength of the U.S. labor market despite a government shutdown and global trade tensions. The more stable monthly average of new claims fell by 5,500 to 215,000. Continuing claims, which counts the number of people already receiving benefits, fell by 24,000 to 1.71 million. That number is reported with a one-week delay.
The number of existing homes sold in December slid to a three-year low last month, another sign that the housing market continues to cool. The National Association of Realtors reported existing-home sales ran at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 4.99 million in December, down 6.4% for the month and 10.3% from the same time last year. The reading was far below the consensus forecast of a 5.1 million selling pace. The full-year sales tally for 2018 of 5.34 million homes sold made it the worst year since 2015 when the housing market was hit by a change in mortgage regulations. In the details of the report, the available number of homes on the market also shrunk. At the current sales pace, it would take 3.7 months to exhaust the available supply, down from 3.9 months in November. Analysts generally consider a 6 months supply of homes on the market to be a “balanced” market.
Research firm IHS/Markit reported its flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index rebounded 1.1 points to 54.9 this month, its first increase in three months. In the details, factory activity picked up at the start of the year, and output grew at its fastest rate since May of 2018. New orders, employment, and inventory growth also accelerated. However, in contrast, Markit’s flash Services PMI slipped 0.2 points to 54.2. However, readings over 50 still indicate expansion. Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit stated in the release, “US businesses reported a solid start to 2019, with the rate of expansion running only slightly weaker than the average seen in the second half of last year.”
Leading indicators for the U.S. pulled back in December suggesting slower growth ahead. The Conference Board reported its Leading Economic Index fell 0.1% in December, its second decline in the final quarter of 2018. Ataman Ozyildirim, director of economic research at the board stated, “The US LEI declined slightly in December and the recent moderation in the LEI suggests that the US economic growth rate may slow down this year.” Furthermore, he added that the LEI now suggests that the economy could decelerate toward 2% growth by the end of 2019. The reading was inline with consensus expectations.
Global Macro Strategist Jim Mylonas at BCA Research in Montreal released a note stating that Canada’s economy may soon endure something it hasn’t faced in 68 years—a recession without the U.S. in the same boat. Mylonas says that a surge in Canadian household debt combined with rising interest rates will push the Canadian economy into recession, even while the U.S. economy continues to grow. “I think we’re just on the precipice of embarking on a serious recession,” Mylonas said. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.” His reasoning is that surprisingly strong growth in the U.S. will the force the Federal Reserve and subsequently the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates. Mylonas stated that the debt-laden Canadian consumer is ill-equipped to handle higher borrowing costs, unlike their U.S. counterparts who dialed back borrowing following the housing crash a decade ago.
Across the Atlantic, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney stated that there is still little clarity on how the U.K. will leave the European Union this year, but his institution has been preparing for a so-called “hard Brexit” since the referendum vote back in 2016. He said the bank's stress tests on what could happen in the event of a "hard Brexit," in which the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29 with no withdrawal agreement in place (and, crucially, no 21-month transition period), were part of its attempts to test the waters about what might happen. In November, the BOE predicted should Brexit occur U.K. GDP would go down by 8%, commercial real estate would fall by 50% and house prices would decline by a third. In addition, unemployment would rise to almost 9% while interest rates would have to go up. The Bank of England was criticized for scaremongering by Brexiteers ahead of the 2016 referendum on whether to stay or leave the European Union with its predictions of economic harm in the event of a "leave" result labeled a part of "project fear."
On Europe’s mainland, IHS/Markit’s measure of manufacturing and services activity in France dropped to 47.9—its lowest level in more than four years. The reading was a significant miss. The consensus forecast was for a rebound to 51. Despite the poor reading, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stated France will stick to its forecast for 2019 of 1.7% economic growth. In addition, he stated he had broader plans to tax the world’s biggest internet and software companies and tackle the power of giant multinational corporations.
Europe’s economic powerhouse Germany is also facing headwinds as manufacturing activity slumped in the first reading of the year. IHS/Markit reported its monthly index showed manufacturing activity in Germany contracted for the first time in four years. The gauge fell to 49.9 from 51.5 with new orders falling at their sharpest pace since 2012. The reading coincided with research firm Zew, which reported its assessment of the current economic situation in Germany plunged 17.7 points to 26.7, its lowest reading since January of 2015. In the details of the report, the survey of German analysts indicated a slight improvement, but still negative, in sentiment with a 2.5-point rise to -15. Achim Wambach, Zew president stated, “It is remarkable that the Zew economic sentiment for Germany has not deteriorated further given the large number of global economic risks.”
In Asia, the Chinese economy grew at its slowest pace in 28 years last year, adding to the urgency for President Xi Jinping to reach a trade deal with the United States. China announced that its official economic growth rate came in at 6.6% last year matching economists’ estimates. Although the trade war is not the main reason for last year’s slowdown, it is not helping. Andrew Collier, managing director of Orient Capital Research stated, “The economy is a much bigger problem for Xi Jinping than the trade war. The last thing he wants is a bunch of angry people protesting because they’ve lost their jobs.” Retail sales, industrial production and property sales all slowed in the final quarter of last year. Car sales were particularly poor, recording the first annual drop in more than two decades.
Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe said China’s slowing growth, concerns over Brexit, and U.S.-China trade disputes pose risks to the world economy. In an environment of growing isolationism Abe announced his two “mega deals” in trade--the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the European Union-Japan Economic Partnership. In addition, Abe said the World Trade Organization needs to be changed, calling for a trading system that protects intellectual property rights. Analysts state it was a veiled reference to China, which the Trump administration and others say is cheating on trade rules and stealing intellectual property from Western companies. "We have to make the WTO into a more credible existence. We need to reform it,” Abe stated.
Finally, if you have happened to take a cross-country road trip through middle America within the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen at least one of these in each of the towns you pass. We’re talking about Walmart, the top private employer in over 20 states. With over 3,500 Walmart Supercenters spread across the 50 states, Walmart has over 1.5 million “associates”. Researchers at visualcapitalist.com created the graphic below to put the size of the Walmart empire into perspective.