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The Prius Economy

A bona fide growth scare is upon us.

The first inklings of the scare may have come from China, a week or two ago, or perhaps from Spain as the 10-year Spanish yield rose through 5.5% and today ended conveniently at 5.99%.

Friday's U.S. Employment report didn't help. In recent months, employment had been rising a lot while the Unemployment Rate fell; but on Friday's number, Unemployment fell due to shrinkage of the Civilian Labor Force despite weak job growth. That is clearly weaker-than-expected, and disappointing to some who thought the economy was surging. To my mind, it merely continues a recent theme of slow, weak, but positive growth. Hardly a growth scare, unless you were suckered in by the equity market to think there was robust growth.

That happens a lot, especially coming out of recessions. The naturally optimistic U.S. investor, prodded by the professionally-optimistic Wall Street broker, sees rising equity prices and assumes that stocks are starting to price good times ahead. That they are, and the goal of said brokers (and Washington brokers of the power variety) is to make the perception of good times trigger the reality of good times as higher prices beget a wealth effect. If it doesn't happen, you get a scare.

But you can't slap a number on the side of a Prius and call it an IndyCar. We have a distinctly Prius economy at the moment (actually, it may be more of a Pinto economy in that it could burst into flames if tapped lightly).

Perhaps that's the fundamental question at the moment: is this a Prius economy - not pretty, but it'll get us there - or a Pinto economy - potentially disastrous, given any provocation.

TIPS voted strongly for the Pinto version, as the yield on the 10-year TIPS bond fell 7.5bps to -0.26%. That was further than the nominal yield fell: 10-year nominal Treasuries rallied only 6.5bps to 1.98% (and the reversal of the breakout to higher yields is complete). The decline in TIPS yields implies that today's leg of the rally, anyway, was led by declining growth expectations rather than declining inflation expectations. Indeed, 10-year inflation expectations actually rose 1bp, while 1-year inflation expectations declined sharply due to a sharp fall in gasoline prices (also growth-related).

Lower long-term growth expectations and a decline in near-term inflation expectations? That sounds like the sort of cocktail that would have produced a QE3 rumor just a week ago! But equities have dropped 4.3% over the last 5 trading days, with today's 1.7% decline the heaviest-volume day of the five. The 916mm shares traded would be feeble by any standard except that of 2012, but would you believe today was the busiest day in the stock market of the year, with the exception of the March triple-witching and the three month-ends?

Oddly, the dollar was roughly unchanged. If the growth scare is sourced from Europe but the cold is caught by the U.S., where is the safe haven? Weirdly, the answer seems to be the Yen, which represents the most over-indebted developed economy with the worst demographic issues. Go figure, but the buck has fallen from 84 Yen to 80.7 Yen over the last couple of weeks.

Personally, I think our economy is more of the Prius variety, which has been my opinion for a while. Europe continues to be a basket case, and I keep repeating my conviction that it won't be over until it's over over there (and, unfortunately, before it's over the Yanks may be coming)! But the U.S. will do fine, as long as you're not looking for a big expansion. Low growth, and possibly a mild recession, are in our future...and that's not the worst thing that has ever happened, it just feels like it since we've been told to expect the equity rally to be validated by subsequent growth.

Equities remain expensive even with the mild selloff. Until a week ago, the operative analogy for me was the rally in 2010 Q3 following the Bernanke quasi-announcement of QE2 at Jackson Hole in late August. There was a pullback in that rally as well - actually a deeper one - after QE2 actually showed up, until the liquidity gusher pushed stocks higher. The problem is that although we got the anticipation of the gusher, we didn't get the gusher. And, unless we do, I think stocks will have difficulty rallying. And if the equity market won't rally, it very likely will decline.

If (probably when) we actually get QE, then the equity rally will resume getting over-extended and ahead of itself, thanks again to the naturally optimistic investor and the professionally-optimistic stock jockey. When that happens, it will be time to look for the Pinto moment.


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