This week, the stock market will likely be on pins and needles
awaiting Friday's July payroll report. The overall July payroll
number is expected to be negative, due mostly to census layoffs as
well as some state and local government layoffs, due to ongoing
budget cuts. Wall Street is more concerned with the private payroll
totals. If the private sector created 100,000 or more jobs in July,
the stock market should rally. However, if the number is 75,000 or
less, fears of a double-dip recession may escalate.
In the interim, earnings announcements continue to lift most
stocks, as companies profit from worldwide economic growth. If
earnings continue strong, stocks could rise in spite of any
disappointing U.S. economic news.
And it appears that right now, headlines aren't much to write
home about. On Friday, we learned that the pace of U.S. economic
growth moderated slightly to a 2.4% annual rate last quarter. Most
of the slowdown was due to a surge in the trade deficit, as imports
rose 28.2%, while exports rose only 10.3%. As a result, trade
subtracted a whopping 2.8% from overall GDP growth in the second
quarter. But it's not all bad news. The good news is that business
investment rose 17% in the second quarter (up from 7.8% in the
first quarter), adding 1.5% to GDP. Another positive note is that
consumer spending rose 1.6%.
All statistics are subject to revision, but GDP is the most
complex of all statistics, so its revisions can be dramatic. For
instance, the first-quarter 2010 GDP was just revised up to 3.7%
from its previous "final" reading of 2.7%, while the fourth quarter
2009 GDP was just revised down to 5.0% from 5.6%, so there are
definitely some "fuzzy" calculations by the GDP number-crunchers at
the Commerce Department.
In other economic news, the Fed issued its latest Beige Book
survey last Wednesday, and it was a "mixed bag." In its previous
Beige Book, the Fed had reported that economic activity had
improved in all 12 of its districts. But this time, two of the
Fed's districts (Cleveland and Kansas City) reported flat economic
growth while two other districts (Atlanta and Chicago) reported
slowing growth. This setback may explain why Fed Chairman Ben
Bernanke recently said that there was "unusual uncertainty" over
the U.S. economic outlook. This also insures that the Fed will keep
interest rates super-low for a longer time.
Speaking of slower GDP growth, there is a growing consensus that
if the 2003 tax cuts are not extended into 2011, the economic
recovery could stall.
What's Next for The Stock Market
Companies are awash with cash because of this political and
economic uncertainty. For now, companies seem to be using their
excess cash to refinance their existing debt and raise dividends
before higher tax rates on dividends go into effect. If the 2003
tax cuts expire in 2011, taxes on dividends could soar from today's
15% to 39.6% next year, even though President Obama has implied
that dividend tax rates should match long-term capital gains rates,
at 20%. Many corporations are also taking advantage of low interest
rates to lower their interest costs by refinancing existing debt.
Their lower borrowing costs also help raise corporate profits,
which could in turn benefit the broader worldwide economy and
encourage more hiring.
Corporate refinancings also tend to lower overall interest
rates. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department sold $38 billion in
2-year notes at a yield of 0.665%, the lowest 2-year rate ever.
Also, the spread on investment-grade corporate bonds (i.e., BBB or
higher) compared to Treasury bonds has fallen from over 6% in late
2008 to well under 2% lately, cutting borrowing costs and boosting
the overall bond market.
Bottom line: The bond market always leads the stock market, so
the current bond market frenzy is helping to set the stage for a
very bullish stock market. The mid-term election could also give
stocks a big boost.
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