01 April 2019

April 2019 | Monthly Economic Update

Posted in Monthly Economic Update

In this month’s recap: the Federal Reserve sees no rate hikes in 2019, investors watch Treasury yields with interest, hiring suddenly weakens, home sales pick up, and the price of oil tops $60.
April 2019 | Monthly Economic Update

THE MONTH IN BRIEF

The Federal Reserve altered its outlook on interest rates in March, and the stock and bond markets certainly took notice. Both the Fed and the European Central Bank communicated that they saw economic growth moderating. Even so, the S&P 500 managed to advance 1.79% for the month. Trade talks continued between the U.S. and China, but without much in the way of real developments. New reports revealed a sudden slowdown in hiring and only mild inflation. Existing home sales accelerated, crude oil gained value, and the Brexit saga took yet another turn.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH

Without a doubt, the major story of the month was the Federal Reserve’s newly dovish stance on monetary policy. The central bank had forecast two quarter-point rate hikes for 2019 in late 2018. On March 20, it held rates steady while projecting only one quarter-point hike through 2021. In announcing this dramatic pivot, the Fed also lowered its estimate of 2019 U.S. economic expansion to 2.1% from the prior 2.3%. Talking to the media after the release of the March 20 policy statement, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell remarked that the “growth of economic activity has slowed,” adding that Fed policymakers saw “some weakening” in the economy, but no signs of a recession.2

More than a few investors interpreted the Fed’s revised outlook as a commentary on the near future. Demand for longer-term Treasury bonds increased, sending their prices higher and their yields lower (bond yields fall when bond prices rise and vice versa). On March 22, the yield on the 2-year Treasury exceeded the yield on the 10-year Treasury. Analysts call this an “inverted yield curve,” and when it happens, the financial media is quick to point out that it could signal a weaker economy ahead. This is open to debate, but rising demand for longer-term Treasuries does imply less appetite for risk in the financial markets.3

By March 26, the CMEGroup’s FedWatch Tool – a gauge of market expectations about interest rate changes – gave the Fed a 71.7% chance of making an interest rate cut by the end of the year, with a 57.7% chance of a cut by September.4

The latest employment report from the Department of Labor showed payrolls expanding by just 20,000 net new hires in February. Even so, the main jobless rate fell 0.2% to 3.8%; the U-6 rate, including the underemployed, dropped 0.8% to 7.3%. (Both reductions could reflect furloughed federal workers returning to their jobs.) Also worth noting: hourly wages were up a nice 3.4% year-over-year.5

Inflation remained muted. The latest Consumer Price Index (February) showed just a 1.5% annualized gain, hardly the kind of pressure that begs action from policymakers.5

On Main Street, there was a slip in consumer confidence. The Conference Board’s monthly index came in at 124.1 for March – a good reading, but well below the 131.4 mark of a month earlier. The latest available data on consumer spending showed a mere 0.1% gain in January.6

A much-watched index tracking the U.S. manufacturing sector showed solid growth, but a slightly slower pace of business activity. The Institute for Supply Management’s purchasing manager index for the factory sector fell from 56.6 in January to 54.2 in February.5

Last month, the federal government downgraded its estimate of fourth-quarter gross domestic product. The final estimate was 2.2%, revised from 2.6%.6

GLOBAL ECONOMIC HEALTH

As March ended, a positive note was sounded in the trade negotiations between the U.S. and China. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin tweeted that “constructive” discussions were taking place, to be continued in April in Washington, D.C.7

The Brexit did not occur on March 29. Instead, the United Kingdom’s Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s (revised) Brexit plan on that day, for a third time. The European Union had earlier granted the United Kingdom a short-term extension of the Brexit deadline; the revised deadline, April 12, now looms large. If Parliament cannot agree on a Brexit deal at the start of this month, May will be left two choices. She can try to carry out a “hard” Brexit by April 12, a move that has little apparent support in Parliament. Alternately, she can ask the E.U. to extend the Brexit deadline again, which is hardly a given.8

On the continent, the European Central Bank decided to bring back some of the stimulus measures it had announced an end to in 2018. In its latest policy announcement, the ECB said that it would hold off on raising interest rates until at least 2020. (It last raised interest rates at the start of this decade.) Elsewhere, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast 2019 growth of less than 1% for the economies of Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, and growth of only 1% for the 19-country Eurozone.9

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