The U.S. economy cranked out new jobs once again in January, to the tune of 200,000 positions. That was above Wall Street analysts’ estimates, but it remains to be seen if it’s enough to help reverse sharp losses in stock futures trading overnight. Rising bond yields continue to drag the market in what’s generally been a rough week for stocks.
The headline jobs number advanced from an upwardly revised 160,000 in December, while unemployment stayed at 4.1%. Once again job growth occurred in career-building sectors, with construction climbing 36,000, health care rising 21,000, and manufacturing up 15,000, the government said. Hourly wage growth rose 0.3%, in line with Wall Street analysts’ expectations, but even with that, 10-year bond yields jumped to a new four-year high of 2.83% after the report hit the news.
In one sense, the big job gains might be weighing on the market a little bit. Many analysts think the country is near full-employment, so when job growth climbs this much, the fear is that eventually it could put pressure on employers to raise wages. Average hourly earnings are up 2.9% over the last year, above the pace of inflation. If wages rise, the thinking is eventually prices could follow, and that might put pressure on the Fed to get tougher on rates.
Stock futures stayed much lower even after the strong jobs report, with Dow Jones Industrial Average ($DJI) futures down more than 200 points.
Earnings popped up one after the other late Thursday and early Friday, and for the big three tech companies results ranged from great to mixed to disappointing.
Amazon.com, Inc. AMZN 5.18% looked pretty positive as the company easily beat Wall Street analysts’ revenue expectations and tore the lid off of estimates for earnings per share, exceeding consensus by nearly $2. Cloud revenue jumped 45% in Q4, and net income more than doubled from a year ago. Shares jumped 6% in post-market trading, a big turn-around after the stock fell more than 4% Thursday in what looked possible profit taking.
On the less positive side, Alphabet Inc GOOG 4.45% GOOGL 5.47% disappointed and the stock took it on the chin in post-market futures trading. Though GOOG beat analysts’ revenue estimates, the company missed consensus for earnings per share as ad costs rose.
The one that’s a little harder to read is Apple Inc AAPL 2.52%. Sure, the company beat analysts’ estimates for earnings and revenue in its fiscal Q1, but iPhone sales came in below expectations and fell from a year earlier. The question seems to be if it’s worth it for AAPL to sell some iPhones at a higher price but at a lower volume. Average selling prices for iPhones climbed sharply in fiscal Q1. The revenue beat suggests that perhaps the $999 iPhone X might have brought in some extra money, but at the cost to AAPL of fewer units sold.
AAPL shares rose just a bit in post-market trading after results came out. It looked like people weren’t sure exactly what to make of the quarter, but some analysts said the bad news about possible lower iPhone sales may have been priced into the stock already, as it’s fallen the last couple of weeks.
The earnings parade continued early Friday with Merck (MRK) and Exxon Mobil (XOM). Merck beat analysts’ earnings per share expectations but came up a little short on Wall Street’s revenue estimate despite strong sales of cancer drug Keytruda, while XOM fell short of consensus estimates and shares slid in pre-market futures trading.
Thursday’s session — with its whipsaw moves up and down — was the kind investors might have forgotten about during the low-volatility, tranquil trading of 2017. Some of the choppiness might have been because of so many currents moving back and forth around the release of all the earnings reports coming out after the close. With AAPL, GOOG, AMZN, and Amgen, Inc. AMGN 1.58% on the post-close calendar, investors seemed unwilling to stand their ground either one way or the other most of the session. The VIX — which measures volatility — remains elevated from last year’s levels at above 14.
From a sector perspective, just about everything ended up in the red Thursday, with telecom one of the major exceptions as it posted a better than 2% rise. Strong earnings from AT&T Inc. T 2.59% might explain part of that, but it also seems like a bit of sector rotation is happening and defensive sectors are beginning to attract some investors. That’s an easy explanation, however, and doesn’t really spell out why utilities, a rate-sensitive sector like telecom, fell so much Thursday. Probably it’s better not to try and find a pattern right now, because rising rates and a falling dollar, along with the slew of daily earnings, seem to have thrown the entire market momentarily out of whack.
Speaking of yields, it seems like all they do is rise lately, and this continues to spook the market. Even calling current levels “near four-year highs” doesn’t tell the whole story, because four years ago when they hit that level they were on their way down. The last time they were climbing through these levels was in late 2013.
Meanwhile, crude climbed more than 2% to above $66 a barrel Thursday amid growing market confidence that OPEC might stick to its production cuts. A persistent bearish factor, however, is U.S. production. Output jumped above 10 million barrels a day last week for the first time since the year the Beatles broke up. Meanwhile, no one came to the dollar’s rescue. The dollar index fell below 89 amid more strength from the euro.
FIGURE 1: STRAIGHT A’S.Amazon (candlestick), Alphabet (blue line) and Apple (purple line) all reported results late Thursday after a year in which their stocks registered big gains. It’s interesting to see here in this one-year chart how Amazon has started pulling ahead of the others in recent weeks while Apple has fallen off the pace a bit. Before recently, the three had been moving pretty much in sync. Data source: Nasdaq. Chart source: The thinkorswim® platform from TD Ameritrade. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance does not guarantee future results..
In what could serve as a learning opportunity for investors, it looks like Wednesday’s run for the hills that sent markets falling around midday might have been based on a rumor that never came to fruition. Word apparently surfaced that pension funds and other large holders were set to dump billions of dollars worth of shares to even their positions before the end of the month, an analyst told CNBC on Thursday. This rumor made sense on the surface, because after January’s rally it’s possible many pension funds had run up stock holdings to levels above their plans, meaning they might have to buy bonds or sell stocks to get their allocations back in order before the month closed.
Some of that may well have happened, but perhaps not to the extent it was rumored, because the market never really crumbled. Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind whenever the last days of a month approach — especially a month with a big rally or big loss — because major swings can occur that aren’t necessarily related to anything fundamental. The market lingo for these kind of last-minute profit harvesting and position-evening machinations is “window dressing,” and investors should always be prepared for possible end-of-month volatility due to such action.
Consumers Seem Ready to Spend
Something that may have been overlooked in this week’s consumer spending and income data is household net worth, which recently reached new heights thanks in part to jumps in equity and real estate markets. This measure could mean consumers feel more inclined to spend, explained analyst Lindsey Bell of research firm CFRA. “Most notably, the ratio of net worth to disposable income is at a record high (going back to 1960) of 6.7x,” Bell wrote in a note to investors. “This can lead consumers to feel more confident and increase their propensity to spend. Ultimately, we think all this adds up to show a strong consumer, which we know has been resilient in the past, and is a reminder that the economy is currently on solid ground.”
GDP Growth Above 5%?
A strong consumer can also play into Q1 gross domestic product (GDP). This week, the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now indicator rose to 5.4%, from the previous estimate of 4.2%. Last quarter’s GDP rose 2.6%. To find a quarter with 5% or better growth, you have to go back to Q3 of 2014. The last time growth topped the Atlanta Fed’s projected 5.4% was in Q3 of 2003, as the economy emerged from the dot.com recession. The Atlanta Fed’s GDP model’s web site explained the jump Thursday, saying “The forecast of real consumer spending growth increased from 3.1% to 4% after this morning’s Manufacturing ISM Report On Business from the Institute for Supply Management, while the forecast of real private fixed-investment growth increased from 5.2% to 9.2% after the ISM report and this morning’s construction spending release from the U.S. Census Bureau.”