Boxed In

This note was originally published at 8am on December 27, 2011. INVESTOR and RISK MANAGER SUBSCRIBERS have access to the EARLY LOOK (published by 8am every trading day) and PORTFOLIO IDEAS in real-time.

“If you ever dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”

- Muhammad Ali

 

In the United Kingdom, Boxing Day, historically, was the day after Christmas on which the wealthy gave their servants gifts in a box to show them appreciation for their service. It is a holiday that it still recognized in much of the Commonwealth, though the concept of the holiday has changed rather dramatically over time. Yesterday, I celebrated Boxing Day in my hometown of Bassano, Alberta with family and friends and a traditional town pond hockey game in the mid-afternoon.

 

In Canada, Boxing Day has morphed from a charitable day to a day which is generally known to have the best shopping deals of the year. With the commercialization of Boxing Day, the goodwill aspect of it has been all but lost. On some level, though, the massive sales that occur on Boxing Day do provide some respite to the middle and lower class consumer who continue to get Boxed In by the North American economy.

 

In the United States, one of the key issues facing the middle and lower class consumer clearly remains the employment situation. The most recent monthly employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, reported in early December and including November data, showed that the national unemployment rate in the United States had declined from 9.8% in November 2010 to 8.6% in November 2011. This was good news, right? Well, as usual, the devil is in the details.

 

From November 2010 to November 2011, the totally number of employed in the United States increased from 138.9 million to 140.6 million for a total increase of 1.68 million, or 1.2%. Conversely, the total number of civilian and non-institutional population not in the workforce increased from 84.8 million to 86.6 million for a total increase of 1.79 million, or 2.1%. So on a net-net basis, the number of people out of the workforce has increased more than the people in the workforce over the last twelve months, despite the illusion of a decreasing unemployment rate.

 

As it relates to prospects for hiring, the outlook is muddled. According to the Business Roundtable survey released last week, about 1/3 of CEOs expect to add employees in 2012, about 40% expect to keep their employees flat, and almost 25% expect to trim headcount. This survey is basically unchanged from its results three months before. A recent survey from Manpower echoed similar uncertainty in the job market, with the following key conclusion:

 

“Seven percent of employers report they are unsure of their hiring intentions going into the new year. The rise from three to seven percent is the most significant quarterly increase since 1977 and represents the highest percentage of uncertain employers surveyed since 2005.”

 

Despite the more ominous long-term employment picture, recent weekly unemployment claims have shown some improvement in the U.S. In fact, last week’s headline initial claims fell 2,000 to 364,000. In terms of context, our financials team wrote the following regarding the recent claims data point:

 

“It strikes us that claims have exhibited similar tendencies for the past few years. Starting around week 36 of the year, rolling claims begin improving and continue that improvement through year-end. While we don't have a great explanation for why that is, considering the data is seasonally adjusted, it does seem to be a recurring trend. Also important is the fact that in the first 1-2 months of the new year, claims seem to go the wrong way, or least have done so in the past few years.

 

We'd also highlight the sizeable divergence that has emerged between claims and the S&P. Historically these divergences have not lasted. Right now the divergence is suggesting that either claims back up to ~445k or the S&P 500 puts on a move to ~1375. Last time a comparable divergence emerged it was in the fall. The mean reversion instrument at that time was the market, as claims showed resilience, and, ultimately, improvement.”

 

Given the employer surveys highlighted above, it seems likely that typical trend of employment worsening in the first couple of months of the year will again come to the fruition this year.

 

In the Chart of the Day, we’ve highlighted the growth of the population not in the workforce in the United States going back three years. This chart illustrates that as unemployment has grown over that period, so too has the population that has left the workforce.

 

The background of the chart is a picture from the “Thrilla in Manilla,” which was the third and final fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. At the start of the seventh round, Ali purportedly whispered in Frazier's ear, "Joe, they told me you was all washed up."  Frazier growled back, "They told you wrong, pretty boy." Unfortunately for Frazier he eventually lost in the 14th round by TKO when his trainer threw in the towel.

 

We are not certain when the U.S. consumer will officially throw in the towel, but there is certainly a scenario in which a strengthening U.S. dollar will help to buoy consumer spending by increasing purchasing power and deflating key input costs. On the other hand, we are much more certain that if Italian yields continue to trend above 7%, as they are this morning, global investors will be increasingly likely to throw in the towel on the Euro.

 

Our immediate-term support and resistance ranges for Gold, Oil (Brent), EUR/USD, and the SP500 are now $1568-1604, $106.02-109.11, $1.28-1.30, and 1231-1270, respectively.

  

Keep your head up and stick on the ice,

 

Daryl G. Jones

Director of Research

 

 

Boxed In - DJ EL chart

 

Boxed In - HVP


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