A month ago the markets received a rude shock in the form of surprisingly low US employment growth for March. And as if to add insult to injury, GDP statistics for the first quarter shriveled to close to zero. During the winter months and on into February, asset prices sliced lower particularly for oil, interest rates and foreign currencies.
The optimists see clear reasons for what they believe are temporary factors that led to the scary economic results. First, of course, the effects of a nasty winter covering most of the country east of the Mississippi. The other half of the country did not fare as badly with weather but had a major work stoppage at ports all up and down the Pacific coast. Goods piled up both in the harbors, on the docks and at their gates. A few of these economists also criticize the actual GDP statistics. Economists Jason Benderly and Ed Hyman, both Wall Street veterans, think the statistical methods used to give us the data are likely flawed. By their calculations, GDP has really been growing close to the average of the last five years: about 2% to 2.5%.
The employment report for April held out some hope for the brighter alternative, but there just has not yet been enough time and data to be sure. On the other hand, if the reality was that a noticeable slowdown was not as severe as reported, then any “bounce” should not be expected to be a show-stopper.
Investors may be able to draw their own conclusions about confusing environments by analyzing the performance of selected investments and checking that against what the bean counters are telling us happened. For our own part, we use quantitative disciplines to measure those investments (covering more than 10,000 securities globally), giving us at least the broadest possible picture. Additionally, we have found that in the process of tracking more than 800 exchange traded funds we are able to further refine those findings and examine specific theses.
So what are the ETFs telling us about the state of the economy? Our ratings process has recently shown improving ranks for ETFs exposed to lower quality bonds. For example, JNK (high yield bonds) and BKLN (senior bank loans) are showing some promise. That would be unlikely if the economy was continuing its swoon. By the same token, IEF, which reflects the performance of the price of 7 to 10 year US Treasury notes, has deteriorated, indicating a rising interest rate environment which presumably means an improving economy, including globally. Along these lines we have seen better ratings for IPFF (international preferred stock), EMB (emerging country debt) and CEMB (emerging country corporate debt). Each of these ETFs would draw strength from a better global economy.
Among commodity ETFs we also note improved ratings for DBB (base or industrial metals). A related security, XLB (primary and processed materials), has also firmed after several quarters of underperformance.
Finally, among equity ETFs, the ratings for a basket of higher risk (or higher beta) stocks, SPHB, is outperforming the ETF that reflects low volatility, SPLV.
While this kind of review is not the same as a formal economic forecast, the overall pattern of what is taking place strongly suggests that, whatever the reason for the recent poor economic data, our disciplines are leaning on the side of a brighter outlook.
Source: QAS ETF Strategist Online (Data as of 05-08-15)