Markets for long-term credit this week dodged not one bullet but an entire volley.
The 10-year Treasury note has been expected to rise through 4 percent and take mortgages toward 6 percent. Instead, the 10-year T-note slid to 3.4 percent and held in the 3.5 percent range in the face of strong economic reports.
The bullets … the first week each month brings flash news about the prior month, and the most definitive data. The Institute for Supply Management surveys of manufacturing and services both outperformed in February at extraordinary levels: 61.4 and 59.7, respectively, which are multiyear highs associated with U.S. Gross Domestic Product growing 5 percent to 8 percent.
The slippery aspect: They measure only better or worse from respondents, blind to how much better. No question: The manufacturing side is hot because pent-up demand for autos released, boosting that sector 27 percent above February last year. The darned things do wear out, and we do get tired of them.
Retail sales have continued to show strength in excess of income growth. Add 2,000 points to the Dow in five months, and those who own stocks open wallets.
News from overseas pushed stocks up (before today) and hurt bonds. Oil prices stopped at $100 per barrel, in the absence of any real interruption in supply; and the European Central Bank indicated a rate rise, leaning into German heat.
Today brought a weak-side surprise. The most important single report each month is the change in payrolls in the prior month. All markets by yesterday had talked themselves into a breakout number — the long-awaited surge in jobs.
For the umpteenth time in four years … didn’t get it.
Oh, we added 192,000 jobs in February, and picked up a cumulative 58,000 revision from December to January, and the number of people filing for unemployment insurance last week was the smallest in three years — but the details are miserable.
Worker earnings — after all, the whole point of the exercise — have been declining for three months straight. Those going back to work are doing so at lesser jobs. Nine million people are still "involuntary part-time," unchanged.
The fraction of the U.S. population at work is 58.4 percent, the lowest in 27 years (when women first began to go to work in large numbers); steady in February but lower than last fall.
Let me try to knit all of this together, and then fail to stuff the resulting sock into my smart-mouth frustration with media and policymakers.
If you’re the S&P 500 companies, you’re doing very well. However, two-thirds of your profits and most of your hiring are overseas. If you’re a business of any size plugged into global markets, you’re fine.
If you’re in information technology, you’re OK — leading edge is a good place to be. If you’re in the health care "mafia," there’s no limit to how much you can charge. The Corleone family should have had such a protection racket.
If you’re not in one of those spaces, you’re worried. Too worried to spend or to hire.
The media "commentariat" was captured by stock-market cheerleading a long time ago, and responsible business voices are scarce. If rich-guy’s rich buddies stop worrying, then everything must be fine.
Age has worn threadbare spots in Warren Buffett’s country-uncle act … his Berkshire Hathaway is again drowning in cash. Buffett has complained that he can’t find another giant company to buy, and said this week that there is too much economic stimulus.
The same guy who profiteered on the financial crash — the principal stockholder in Moody’s who has fought all efforts to reform rating agencies — had no promises for Berkshire’s plans to hire.
Buffett’s bridge partner, Bill Gates, is one of the few rising to the occasion. In a don’t-miss interview with Charlie Rose, dedicated to budget trouble at all levels of government, Gates showed jaw-dropped urgency, near anger at his discoveries of budget malfeasance and hazard (details at www.thegatesnotes.com).
What can we do to restore confidence, get us moving? No longer worthy of coverage: housing. Boring, boring, boring. Mortgage applications were down another 6 percent last week, and 19 percent year-over-year.
And there’s no talk among authorities except how to withdraw support for the mortgage tax credit, and tighten the remainder.