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Economic Indicators

The U.S. economy is a very complex system, with indicators therefore ambiguous and difficult to interpret. To what degree do macroeconomics and the stock market go hand-in-hand, if at all? Do investors/traders: (1) react to economic readings; (2) anticipate them; or, (3) just muddle along, mostly fooled by randomness? These blog entries address relationships between economic indicators and the stock market.

New Home Sales and Future Stock Market/REIT Returns

Each month, the Census Bureau announces and the financial media report U.S. new home sales as a potential indicator of future U.S. stock market returns. Release date is about three weeks after the month being reported. Moreover, new releases may substantially revise recent past releases, so that the Census Bureau historical data set effectively has a longer lag. Does this economic indicator convey useful information about future returns for the broad U.S. stock market or for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT)? To investigate, we relate returns for the S&P 500 Index (SP500) and for the FTSE NAREIT All REITs total return index (REITs) to changes in new home sales at the monthly release frequency. Using monthly data for SP500 and for seasonally adjusted annualized new homes sales starting January 1963, and for REITs starting December 1971, all through September 2018, we find that: Keep Reading

Housing Starts and Future Stock Market/REIT Returns

Each month, the Census Bureau announces and the financial media report U.S. housing starts as a potential indicator of future U.S. stock market returns. Release date is about two weeks after the month being reported. New releases may substantially revise recent past releases, so that the Census Bureau historical data set effectively has a longer lag. Does this economic indicator convey useful information about future returns for the broad U.S. stock market or for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT)? To investigate, we relate returns for the S&P 500 Index (SP500) and for the FTSE NAREIT All REITs total return index (REITs) to changes in housing starts at the monthly release frequency. Using monthly data for SP500 and for seasonally adjusted annualized housing starts starting January 1959, and for REITs starting December 1971, all through September 2018, we find that:

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Which Economic Variables Really Matter for Stocks?

Which economic variables are most important for predicting stock returns? In their October 2018 paper entitled “Sparse Macro Factors”, David Rapach and Guofu Zhou apply machine learning to isolate via sparse principal component analysis (PCA) which of 120 economic variables from the FRED-MD database most influence stocks. These variables span output/income, labor market, housing, consumption, orders/inventories, money/credit, yields/exchange rates and inflation. As a preliminary step, they adjust raw economic variables by, where necessary: (1) transforming them to produce stationary series; (2) adjusting for reporting lags of one or two months. They next execute sparse PCA, which sets small component weights to zero, thereby facilitating interpretation of results without sacrificing much predictive power. For comparison, they also extract the first 10 conventional principal components from the same variables. Finally, they use 202 stock portfolios to estimate the influence of sparse and conventional principal components on the cross section of stock returns. Using monthly data for the 120 economic variables and 202 stock portfolios during February 1960 through June 2018, they find that:

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The Decision Moose Asset Allocation Framework

A reader requested review of the Decision Moose asset allocation framework. Decision Moose is “an automated stock, bond, and gold momentum model developed in 1989. Index Moose uses technical analysis and exchange traded index funds (ETFs) to track global investment flows in the Americas, Europe and Asia, and to generate a market timing signal.” The trading system allocates 100% of funds to the index projected to perform best. The site includes a history of switch recommendations since the end of August 1996, with gross performance. To evaluate Decision Moose, we assume that switches and associated trading returns are as described (out of sample, not backtested) and compare the returns to those for dividend-adjusted SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) over the same intervals. Using Decision Moose signals/performance data and contemporaneous SPY prices during 8/30/96 through 10/19/18 (22+ years), we find that: Keep Reading

Public Debt, Inflation and the Stock Market

When the U.S. government runs substantial deficits, some experts proclaim the dollar’s inevitable inflationary debasement and bad times for stocks. Other experts say that deficits are no cause for alarm, because government spending stimulates the economy, and the country can bear more debt. Who is right? Using annual (end of fiscal year, FY) level of the U.S. public debtinterest expense on the debtU.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP)Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) return and inflation rate as available during June 1929 through September 2018 (about 89 years), we find that: Keep Reading

Credit Spread as an Asset Return Predictor

A reader commented and asked: “A wide credit spread (the difference in yields between Treasury notes or Treasury bonds and investment grade or junk corporate bonds) indicates fear of bankruptcies or other bad events. A narrow credit spread indicates high expectations for the economy and corporate world. Does the credit spread anticipate stock market behavior?” To investigate, we define the U.S. credit spread as the difference in yields between Moody’s seasoned Baa corporate bonds and 10-year Treasury notes (T-note), which are average daily yields for these instruments by calendar month (a smoothed measurement). We use the S&P 500 Index (SP500) as a proxy for the U.S. stock market. We extend the investigation to bond market behavior via:

  • Vanguard Long-Term Treasury Investors Fund (VUSTX)
  • Vanguard Long-Term Investment-Grade Investors Fund (VWESX)
  • Vanguard High-Yield Corporate Investors Fund (VWEHX)

Using monthly Baa bond yields, T-note yields and SP500 closes starting April 1953 and monthly dividend-adjusted closes of VUSTX, VWESX and VWEHX starting May 1986, January 1980 and January 1980, respectively, all through August 2018, we find that: Keep Reading

Real Bond Returns and Inflation

A subscriber asked (more than six years ago): “Everyone says I should not invest in bonds today because the interest rate is so low (and inflation is daunting). But real bond returns over the last 30 years are great, even while interest rates are low. Could you analyze why bonds do well after, but not before, 1981?” To investigate, we consider the U.S. long-run interest rate and the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) series from Robert Shiller. The long-run interest rate is the yield on U.S. government bonds, specifically the constant maturity 10-year U.S. Treasury note after 1953. We use the term “T-note” loosely to refer to the entire series. We apply the formula used by Aswath Damodaran to the yield series to estimate the nominal T-note total returns. We use the CPI series to calculate inflation (12-month change in CPI). We subtract inflation from the T-note nominal total return to get the T-note real total return. Using annual Shiller interest rate and CPI data for 1871 through 2017, we find that: Keep Reading

Mojena Market Timing Model

The Mojena Market Timing strategy (Mojena), developed and maintained by professor Richard Mojena, is a method for timing the broad U.S. stock market based on a combination of many monetary, fundamental, technical and sentiment indicators to predict changes in intermediate-term and long-term market trends. He adjusts the model annually to incorporate new data. Professor Mojena offers a hypothetical backtest of the timing model since 1970 and a live investing test since 1990 based on the S&P 500 Index (with dividends). To test the robustness of the strategy’s performance, we consider a sample period commencing with inception of SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) as a liquid, low-cost proxy for the S&P 500 Index. As benchmarks, we consider both buying and holding SPY (Buy-and-Hold) and trading SPY with crash protection based on the 10-month simple moving average of the S&P 500 Index (SMA10). Using the trade dates from the Mojena Market Timing live test, daily dividend-adjusted closes for SPY and daily yields for 13-week Treasury bills (T-bills) from the end of January 1993 through August 2018 (over 25 years), we find that: Keep Reading

PPI and the Stock Market

Inflation at the producer level (derived from the Producer Price Index – PPI) is arguably an advance indicator for inflation downstream at the consumer level (derived from the Consumer Price Index – CPI). Do investors therefore reliably react to changes in PPI as an indicator of the future wealth discount rate? In other words, is a high (low) producer-level inflation rate bad (good) for the stock market? Using monthly, non-seasonally adjusted PPI from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and contemporaneous S&P 500 Index levels during January 1950 through July 2018 (823 months), we find that: Keep Reading

Economic Policy Uncertainty and the Stock Market

Does quantified uncertainty in government economic policy reliably predict stock market returns? To investigate, we consider the U.S. Economic Policy Uncertainty (EPU) Index, created by Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom and Steven Davis and constructed from three components: (1) coverage of policy-related economic uncertainty by prominent newspapers: (2) the number of temporary federal tax code provisions set to expire in future years; and, (3) the level of disagreement in one-year forecasts among participants in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Survey of Professional Forecasters for both (a) the consumer price index (CPI) and (b) purchasing of goods and services by federal, state and local governments. They first normalize each component by its own standard deviation prior to January 2012. They then compute a weighted average of components, assigning a weight of one half to news coverage and one sixth each to tax code uncertainty, CPI forecast disagreement and government purchasing forecast disagreement. They update the EPU index monthly with a delay of about one month, including revisions to recent months. Using monthly levels of the EPU Index and the S&P 500 Index during January 1985 through June 2018, we find that: Keep Reading

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