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Bad data is good data... but for how long?

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Following better-than-expected inflation print for April 2024, investors found once again an excuse for relatively bad data to be good for the market in anticipation of rate cuts, causing the S&P 500 Index (SPX) and other indices to soar to new all-time highs. However, just three or four months ago, the general expectations were for seven rate cuts in 2024, something we quickly ruled out when these assumptions emerged. After data in the first quarter revealed sticky inflation numbers, these expectations dropped dramatically to only one or two rate cuts by the year’s end. Thus, by now, it should probably be out of the question whether the Federal Reserve will continue to prioritize controlling inflation over unemployment, which has also been slowly rising. In fact, the unemployment rate rose to 3.9% last month, reaching the highest level since early 2022, when excluding the same print for February 2024. Yet, while the 0.5% increase from the lows does not seem significant, historically, a 1% rise in unemployment has been typically accompanied by a recession. Therefore, even though the rate of increase is slow, unemployment is moving in a concerning direction. Besides that, U-6 unemployment is growing much faster, and there are many other discrepancies in the labor market data, which could potentially hint at a much worse state of the economy that is being reported.

 

The monthly graph of the unemployment rate in the United States is shown above.

 

Another interesting detail is that retail sales remained unchanged in April 2024 from the previous month, and the yearly change amounted to 3%, while inflation rose by 3.4% during the same period. In addition to that, the United States ISM PMI contracted last month, and expansion in the United States S&P Global Composite PMI eased. Again, while these are not outright horrible developments, the economic slowdown will likely become even more apparent in the coming months as the FED keeps a tight monetary policy for longer, putting additional pressure on economic activity and exacerbating the challenges faced by various sectors and consumers. With that, the question lingers over how much longer investors will continue to interpret bad data as good in anticipation of something that is not coming and will only serve to confirm the economy is really not faring that well when it comes.

 

One of the challenges in the current environment is debt servicing. This fact is strongly reflected in soaring delinquencies on credit card loans, which have nearly doubled since the Federal Reserve started the hiking cycle.

 

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