Mid-Year 2018 : Economic Update
THE MONTH IN BRIEF
U.S. stocks have been trending higher, but have endured some rough water over the past few weeks. In May, investors were left to interpret mixed signals. The historic U.S.-North Korea summit was on, then off, then on again. An apparent truce emerged in the U.S.-China tariffs battle, but it did not last. Oil rallied, but then prices fell. Federal Reserve policy meeting minutes indicated central bank officials would accept above-target inflation for a while. Other economic signals were clear: new and existing home sales were down, consumer confidence was back up, and consumer spending was strong. In the end, the markets took all this in stride – the S&P 500 rose 2.16% for the month.
Now in June, U.S. stocks continue to fall as a threat of new tariffs on Chinese imports from the U.S. is ramping up global trade fears. Treasury yields are dropping and the U.S. dollar is rising.
Mortgage rates may have soared in April, but they stabilized in May. On May 31, Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey found the mean interest rate for a conventional home loan at 4.56%, which was 0.02% lower than on April 26. (At the end of May 2017, the average interest rate on a 30-year ARM was 3.95%.)
Home buying fell off in April. According to National Association of Realtors research, there was a 2.5% retreat in the pace of existing home sales. Construction for single and multi-family units were solidly higher compared to the prior month and are up noticeably year over year. Building permits, one of the leading indicators tracked by the Conference Board as it is a gauge of future construction, fell in May compared to April. Permits for single and multi-family unit structures both declined month over month but both remain higher year over year.
LOOKING BACK…LOOKING FORWARD
The economy is still in good shape, and is likely to withstand possible storms ahead. Volatility is unlikely to diminish Fed tightening expectations for the rest of 2018. The Fed hiked rates 0.25% on June 13th.
Trade concerns continue to rise. Tariffs are now being levied on imported steel and aluminum, and the trading partners affected by these taxes are responding or planning to respond with tariffs of their own on U.S. goods. Could stocks stall out because of this? An impeded flow of international trade would certainly impact the GDP of the world’s major economies and exert a drag on corporate earnings. The uneasiness about the brewing trade war gives some investors pause; the potential scope of it seems too large to price in. It is hard to imagine any kind of summer rally if the measures and countermeasures taken by various countries escalate. Not all investors appear to be worried, though – witness what happened in May even as the distinct possibility of trade wars emerged. The blue chips were hurt, but the tech sector and the small caps held up. Do these shares have further room to advance, and will investors retain their bullishness about them? June presents significant questions for investors worldwide, and we may see equities take a pause as threatened tariffs become reality.
That being said, patience and endurance are important in the face of occasional ominous headlines as we look forward to long-term goals.