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February 2009

How bad is current unemployment?

David Altig at Atlanta Fed analyzes the current unemployment in historical comparative perspective. Also refer to my previous posts on this: here and here.

How bad is the employment picture, really?

We quite likely have not hit bottom in the labor market yet, and the percent loss in nonfarm payroll employment since the beginning of the current recession is already worse than all of the previous seven recessions save the 1981–82 contraction:


A cross-recession look at employment losses, but based on data from a survey of households (as opposed to payroll data collected from business establishments):


TED spread has come down

We may well have passed the storm eye and Q4 2008 may well be the worst quarter in this cycle. But I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The recovery is not in sight and it will be slow and gradual, if any.

1-year Ted spread:

3-year Ted spread:

(click to enlarge; source: Bloomberg)

Analyzing Gold Demand

Pretty good analysis of gold demand (source: wsj). Something I don't know is jewelry demand accounts for almost 3/4 of total demand. Also, from investor's perspective, I think gold often serves the following functions:

1. inflation hedge
2. currency hedge (consider central banks use it as hedge for $)
3. safe haven (during panic time)
4. precious metal (during commodity boom)

In all, gold should be a good and rewarding investment in coming years.

Besides its luster, gold is prized for its malleability — and not just by metalworkers.

Gold's shifting identity as safe haven, currency, raw material and adornment draws in all manner of buyers. That complicates judging the gold price's next move. Goldbugs, for example, must wonder why, at about $900 an ounce, it remains 10% below its March peak, despite the subsequent intensification of the global economic crisis.

[Getting a Grip on Gold's Price] 

Their disappointment results, in part, from the reluctance of Indian brides to buy gold once it reaches $750 an ounce or more. According to the Bombay Bullion Association, India's gold imports plunged 81% in December. This collapse in jewelry demand has extended world-wide — witness Tiffany & Co's woes. That matters given trinkets have accounted for almost three quarters of gold demand this decade.

Further falls in jewelry demand this year are certainly possible. But investors are the marginal buyers of gold. Jewelry consumption fell from over 3,000 metric tons in 2001 to just over 2,000 metric tons in 2008, according to HSBC analysts. Yet rising demand from investors, particularly in exchange traded funds, offset half that decline. Along with reduced mining output, that underpinned the price rally.

How investment demand holds up will determine how brightly gold shines over the next couple of years. In particular, retail demand — individuals buying gold ETFs, bars, wafers and coins — is the swing factor. Institutional speculators in the gold futures market have retreated since last summer, as hedge funds have imploded.

[Getting a Grip on Gold's Price]

Individuals, however, have a renewed taste for bling. UBS analysts report an acceleration of inflows into gold ETFs in recent weeks, as well as strong demand for physical gold — unusual given the rally in the US dollar since mid-December.

Can it be maintained? The key, reckons UBS metals strategist John Reade, is whether gold switches from being a "small minority" investment to merely a "minority" investment. The eight gold ETFs he tracks are worth, collectively, around $36 billion — roughly 1% of the savings in U.S. money market funds.

A relatively small shift in the percentage of their portfolios that investors tuck away in gold would keep the price elevated. While inherently uncertain, there are valid reasons to expect such an outcome. Dislocation in equities and other traditional investments should encourage diversification — perhaps even in India, given the collapse in the Sensex and the scandal at Satyam Computer Services Ltd.

Investors may also finally question the merits of piling into US Treasurys as a safe haven: Why lower Washington's borrowing costs even as it spews out ever more paper? Quantitative easing necessarily raises the specter of deflation, which is bad for gold prices. Equally, however, it speaks to general currency mayhem and increased risk of a longer-term inflationary overshoot — both good for gold.

Long recession and anemic recovery

This WSJ analysis looks at the trend of corporate earnings growth, and it shows (in graph) we are having a downside overshot on earnings and it will take longer than normal to recover. This is not good for stock market.

There are hints lately that the economy’s collapse isn’t quite as precipitous as it once was, which suggests the worst may be over for corporate profits, too. That doesn’t mean they are anywhere close to normal.

Since World War II, earnings have grown at about 6% a year, slightly trailing economic growth. But earnings have fallen well off trend during the current recession.

[S&P 500 earnings quarterly]

a similar but much gorgeous chart:

(click to enlarge; chart via Bob Bronson Capital Management)

“As-reported” earnings per share — which, unlike “operating” EPS, conform to accounting standards — of companies in the S&P 500 are on pace to total just $28.75 for the past four quarters, according to Standard & Poor’s. That is roughly 61% below where they would be had they maintained a 6% growth rate in recent years, estimates Vitaliy Katsenelson, head of research at Investment Management Associates in Denver.

Earnings overshot the trend by about 31% before the downturn, Mr. Katsenelson estimates, and if recent history is any guide the payback will be vicious. Earnings got 18% above trend during the tech-stock boom, for example, but then fell 50% below trend and took 2½ years to crawl back. Given current forecasts for as-reported earnings, profit growth could still be nearly 40% below trend by the end of 2010.

Stock prices can still rise during that recovery. And profit growth tends to be turbocharged coming out of a recession, helping earnings catch up to their long-term average.

But long-term growth could be slowed for years to come by a hobbled banking sector and debt-shedding U.S. consumers. In short, stocks mightn’t be quite as cheap as they look.