By William Patalon III
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
With oil trading near a three-month low (and corn now at a four-month low), U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers may have just the ammunition they need to hold the line on interest rates for the foreseeable future – or at least until their Sept. 16 policymaking meeting.
On the other hand, threats of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and geopolitical turmoil in Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria – and now the fireworks between Russia and Georgia – could spark a dramatic reversal in sentiment and renew fears of supply disruptions.
However, this week's economic calendar contains the types of reports that will factor into the musings of Federal Reserve policymakers with regards to interest rates.
The report on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for July – due out Thursday – gives economists another look into domestic price pressures, although the recent drop in energy prices will not yet be reflected in this data. Then again, economists tend to focus only on so-called "core" inflation (which "excludes volatile food-and-energy prices," anyway).
The July retail sales report gives us some additional insight into the consumer mindset, demonstrating that those tax rebates are virtually all gone. With gas prices on the decline, consumers should have a bit more available disposable income in the months ahead (though, again, the July numbers may not show any enhanced activity just yet).
Additional confirmation of the recent consumer cautiousness should come from the next round of earnings reports, which will feature reports from such retailers as Macy's Inc. (M), J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP), Nordstrom Inc. (JWN), and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT). Should the gas trend continue, consumers could emerge from hibernation just in time for the holiday shopping season… wishful thinking?
Let the games begin. As host of the, Mainland China takes center stage and gets the chance to show the rest of the world that it has arrived as a global player and an economic superpower. Of course, no event should be more apolitical than the Olympics. That is, until China banned some participants for their support of Darfur. And before U.S. President George W. Bush criticized China's poor record of human rights on the eve of the games. And before China deported a few activists who were demonstrating against certain national policies. (Probably nothing that a few gold medals won't cure.)
Speaking of having politics cross over into the economy: Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama publicly lobbied for the sale of 70 million barrels of oil from the U.S. strategic reserve and also claimed to now support new offshore drilling (if his tire gauge idea fails to prove an effective policy). As the presidential-election campaigns accelerate into the home stretch, investors can expect plenty of promises (and flip-flopping) from both sides of the aisle. (How do you feel about those Bush tax cuts this week, Senator McCain?)
So just where are investors to turn these days? Freddie Mac (FRE) and Fannie Mae (FNM) returned to the headlines last week, as both reported significant losses – far in excess of Wall Street expectations. (Weren't those analysts following the news?) Likewise, insurance giant American International Group Inc. (AIG) reported its third consecutive quarterly loss as its mortgage portfolio remained deeply under water. Citigroup Inc. (C), Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. (MER) and UBS AG (UBS) each reached multi-billion settlements with the New York state attorney general over certain high-risk securities that the firms will buy back from affected investors. Outside of financials, Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) – the subject of a recent " " feature in Money Morning – provided a boost to techs by announcing better-than-expected profits; likewise, The Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) proved that consumer companies could still thrive, despite surging commodity prices.
Institutional funds have garnered additional interest as of late as investors seek out non-traditional asset classes to help compensate for the challenges of the markets. In July, Hedge Fund Research Inc. reported that the return on a basket of 60 funds designed to reflect the industry as a whole declined by about 3%, the worst monthly showing in six years. . will be spinning off its Raptor fund at year-end after bad calls on the energy sector caused ongoing losses for the past two years. Private equity firm, Fortress Investment Group LLC (FIG), reported a larger-than-expected quarterly loss and has seen its share price drop about 40% since its IPO in early 2007. Bear in mind, not all hedge funds and non-traditional assets are created equal; plenty of "winners" have emerged lately.
Anyone remember when oil touched $147 a barrel on July 11? Has the bubble officially burst? Energy continued its downward spiral as oil fell below $117 barrel, its lowest level since early May. Rising inventories eased supply/demand concerns and renewed strength in the dollar also helped support domestic securities (thanks to the European Central Bank – see below). Equity market volatility remained as investors tried to weigh the negative Freddie/Fannie reports against the positive energy trend (and the inactivity of Federal Reserve policymakers with regards to interest rates – also see below). Stocks alternatively soared, plunged, and soared again as the major indexes moved considerably higher by end of last week.
Then there are the ongoing Beijing Summer Olympic Games (which opened Friday), a reminder that every investor should have a China investment strategy [Editor's Note: Please click here to read the first part of our two-part research report -"Why Every Investor Should Have a China Investment Strategy." The second part of that report will appear later this week.]
Perhaps that jubilant Olympic spirit is contagious? So let the games continue: "USA…USA…USA…!"
Dow Jones Industrial
10 yr Treasury (Yield)
They came, they debated, they analyzed, and they left – with no action taken. The "they" we refer to here are the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the Federal Reserve policymakers responsible for setting interest rates.
With dueling economic dilemmas impacting the country (slow growth vs. inflation), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his band of central bank policymakers chose to leave the benchmark Federal Funds rate unchanged at 2.00% at their policymaking meeting last week.
While most Fed-watchers still expect the next interest-rate move to be to the upside, some believe such an action is unlikely before the end of this year as reduced consumer activity continues to spark talks of recession. The recent decline in commodity prices helped the Fed stay on the sidelines, given that inflationary pressures are slightly less than before (at least, for the time being). The European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England both left their key rates unchanged as they also weigh ongoing economic concerns in their countries against continued price pressures. They prompted a surge in the dollar and took additional pressure off of the Fed, as well.
On the retail front, same store sales in July were lackluster at best as consumer held off on back-to-school purchases and focused on necessities such as food and household goods. (Apparently, last year's No. 2 pencils and lunchboxes still will work fine.
Even the afore-mentioned Wal-Mart's sales came in slightly below expectations while mall chains – the Limited Brands Inc. (LTD) and The Gap Inc. (GPS) – and luxury retailers such as Saks Inc. (SKS) all struggled as consumers no longer had those tax rebates to spend. Moving to housing, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) reported that just under 1% of all prime (not subprime) loans originated in early 2007 were at least 90 days delinquent, meaning that the mortgage crisis still has a ways to go before being resolved (and additional write-downs may be on the way). The weekly jobless claims data showed that more unemployed folks are seeking government benefits than at any time since March 2002.
Weekly Economic Calendar
Personal Income/Spending (06/08)
Spending up on tax rebates
Factory Order (06/08)
Largest increase since December
ISM – Services (07/08)
Sector contraction though not as bad as expected
Fed Policy Meeting Statement
Left rates unchanged as expected
Consumer Credit (06/08)
Fastest pace of borrowing in 7 months
Initial Jobless Claims (08/02/08)
Rose to a six-year high
The Week Ahead
Balance of Trade (06/08)
Retail Sales (07/08)
Initial Jobless Claims (08/09/08)
Industrial Production (07/08)
News and Related Story Links:
- Beijing Olympic Games:
- Money Morning News:
ECB Holds Rates Steady, but Growth Concerns are Beginning to Supplant Fears About Inflation.
- Money Morning Special Investment Report:
Why Every Investor Should Have a China Investment Strategy.
Consumer Price Index.
- Money Morning News Analysis:
Cisco Says "No Deal" for EMC; Shares Jump on Better-Than-Expected Financial Results.
- Money Morning News:
Federal Reserve Holds Rates Steady at 2.00%, Says "Downside Risks" and Inflation Remain Concerns.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
- Money Morning Global Investing Roundups:
Weekly Jobless Claims.
About the Author
Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning at Money Map Press. With his latest project, Private Briefing, Bill takes you "behind the scenes" of his established investment news website for a closer look at the action. Members get all the expert analysis and exclusive scoops he can't publish... and some of the most valuable picks that turn up in Bill's closed-door sessions with editors and experts.