The defining feature of the present market and economic environment is incompatibility, juxtaposing weakness in emerging markets, materials, and inflation-protected securities with strength in equities and the U.S. dollar, a spike in interest rates, and an unusually steep yield curve in Treasury securities. The underlying thesis here couples a theme of deflation with a theme of robust economic strength. Taken together, the financial markets have priced a wide range of assets on the assumption that the U.S. is on the verge of a deflationary boom. Most likely, part of this scenario is wrong.
On Friday, bonds fell, stocks rallied and the U.S. dollar surged on strength in the June non-farm payroll report. While employment is widely understood to be a lagging, not leading indicator of the economy, the report would be worthy of enthusiasm if it was also coupled with strength in leading economic measures and coincident/lagging measures. We observe little evidence of that at present. Indeed, while both the establishment and household surveys showed job growth in June, the composition detail in the household survey was hardly an indication of a robust economy, with a loss of 240,000 full-time jobs offset by a 360,000 gain in employees reporting that they usually work part-time. Fully 352,000 of this increase fell into the category of “part time for economic reasons (slack work or business conditions).”
We can make sense of the “deflationary boom” thesis only if we consider various pieces in isolation, rather than as a cohesive whole. With Europe still in a recession, and an acute relapse of credit concerns in Portugal in recent days, Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank reached for the only tool still at his infinite disposal – words – to promise that interest rates would be held at zero for a significant length of time. In China, debt servicing problems are emerging in corporate and local government debt following years of unproductive overinvestment in still-vacant buildings, and attempts to slow the rapid, low-quality credit growth has quickly been met by strains on liquidity and economic growth. Coupled with the better-than-expected employment numbers, at least on the surface, Wall Street has chosen China and Europe to make the deflation case, and the perception of U.S. economic growth as the basis for a “cleanest dirty shirt” argument for the U.S. dollar and U.S. equities. In effect, Wall Street is singing “We are the world… so the rest of the world can sink into the sea.”