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Is the Earnings Rally Losing Steam?

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Earnings have been an unsung hero of the 2017 rally, but there are some anecdotal signs that strong earnings may already be fully priced into stocks, leaving a lack of potential positive catalysts given the macro environment.

Now, to be clear, earnings season has been (on the surface) good. From a broad standpoint, the results have pushed expected 2018 S&P 500 EPS slightly higher (to $139) and that’s enough to justify current valuations, taken in the context of a calm macro horizon and still-low bond yields.

However, the market’s reaction to strong earnings is sending some caution signals throughout the investor
community. Specifically, according to a BAML report I read earlier this week, the vast majority of companies who reported a beat on the top line (revenues) and bottom line (earnings) saw virtually no post-earnings rally this quarter. Getting specific, by the published date of the report (earlier this week) 174 S&P 500 companies had beat on the top and bottom line, yet the average gain for those stocks 24 hours after the announcement was… 0%. They were flat. To boot, five days after the results, on average these 174 companies had underperformed the market!

That’s in stark contrast to the 1.6%, 24-hour gain that companies who beat on the revenues and earnings have enjoyed, on average, since 2000.

In fact, the last time we saw this type of post earnings/sales beat non-reaction was Q2 of 2000. It could be random, but that’s not exactly the best reference point.

So, if we’re facing a market that’s fully priced in strong earnings, the important question then becomes, what will spur even more earnings growth?

Potential answers are: 1) A rising tide of economic activity, although that’s not currently happening. Another is 2) A surge in productivity that increases the bottom line. But, productivity growth has been elusive for nearly a decade, and it’s unclear what would suddenly spark a revival. Finally, another candidate is 3) Rising inflation that would allow for price and margin increases. Yet as we know, that’s not exactly threatening right now, either.

Bottom line, earnings have been the unsung hero of this market throughout 2017, but this is a, “What Have You Don’t For Me Lately” market, especially at nearly 18X next year’s earnings. If earnings growth begins to slow and we don’t get any uptick in economic growth or pro-growth policies from Washington, then it’s hard to see what will push this market higher beyond just general momentum (and general momentum may be fading, at least according to the price action in tech). To be clear, the trend in stocks is still higher, but the environment isn’t as benign as sentiment, the VIX or the financial media would have you believe.

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet, July 31, 2017

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Last Week in Review

Data has been remarkably consistent the last few weeks, including last week: “OK” but not great economic growth, and consistent signs that inflation is losing momentum. As such, the economic data continues to point to a “Stagnation” set up for stocks and other assets.

Given that inflation trends are more important than growth trends right now, I’ll start with the Quarterly Employment Cost Index, which, like many other inflation indicators in Q2, slightly missed estimates. The Q2 ECI rose 0.5% vs. (E) 0.6, maintaining a 2.4% yoy increase from Q1, but slightly disappointing vs. expectations.

Additionally on Friday, the PCE Price Indices from the Q2 GDP report showed deceleration in the pace of inflation. The PCE Price Index rose just 1% in Q2 vs. (E) 1.2%. Now, none of these inflation statistics are particularly bad. Yet from a policy standpoint, these numbers won’t make the Fed eager to tighten policy ahead of the current schedule (balance sheet reduction in September, rate hike, probably, in December).

Turning to actual growth data, it was “ok” but not great. Q2 GDP met expectations with a 2.6% yoy gain, and that was a true number as Final Sales of Domestic Product (which is GDP less inventories) was also 2.6%. Consumer Spending, or PCE as it’s known in the GDP report, rose 2.8%, again a solid but unspectacular number.

Similarly, June Durable Goods, while a decent report, wasn’t that strong. The headline was a big beat at 6.5% vs. (E) 3.5%, but that was because of one-time airline orders. New Orders for Non-Defense Capital Goods ex-aircraft, the best proxy for corporate spending and investment, was revised higher in May but dipped 0.1% in June.

Point being, like most growth data recently, it wasn’t a bad report, but it’s not the kind of strength that will spur a reflationary rally.

Finally, the one economic data point that was strong last week was the July flash manufacturing PMI. It rose to 54.2 vs. (E) 53.2, but while that is a potential positive (it’s a July report so it’s the most current) the PMIs are surveys, and the gap between soft survey data and “hard” economic numbers remains wide.

Turning to the Fed meeting last week, the two takeaways were: 1) The Fed confirmed that they will reduce the balance sheet in September, barring any big economic or inflation surprises. 2) The Fed did slightly downgrade the inflation outlook, but importantly it kept open the option to hike rates at any meeting, and as such a December rate hike is still likely).

This Week’s Preview

As stated, inflation is more important than growth data right now, so that means two most important numbers this week will be tomorrow’s Core PCE Price Index (contained in the Personal Income and Outlays report) and Friday’s wage data in the jobs report.

Stocks have rallied since Yellen turned incrementally dovish at her Humphrey-Hawkins testimony, and soft inflation data will further that sentiment and underpin stocks.

Conversely, if we see inflation bounce back, that will push bond yields higher and help reflation assets (banks, small caps, inverse bond funds, cyclicals).

But, inflation stats aren’t the only important numbers this week as we get the latest final manufacturing and composite US and global PMIs. They remain important because they will provide anecdotal insight into the pace of the US and global economy. But again, it would be a pretty big surprise if the data suddenly showed slowing in the global economy.

On the flip side, at least for the US, a strong report would be welcome, because strong economic data won’t cause the Fed to get more “hawkish” unless inflation ticks higher.

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What Caused The Mid-Day Selloff?

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The most likely “cause” of the midday reversal and selloff (which frankly looked ugly for an hour or so) was a cautious report from JPM quant analyst Kolanovic, and the reasons it caused a dip are twofold. First, Kolanovic is very respected on the Street, and he was one of the first analysts to correctly identify the role of “Risk Parity” funds in the violent market declines of August 2015.

Second, he outright suggested investors hedge equity exposure.

Now, to be clear, it wasn’t a bearish report, as he did note there are strong, positive fundamental factors supporting stocks including a rising economic tide and growing earnings.

However, he made the point that, in his opinion, market volatility is now at an all-time low. The specific accuracy of this claim can be debated, but let’s all agree market volatility is close to, if not at, all-time
lows.

The all-time lows in volatility have caused funds to use increasingly leveraged strategies to generate outsized returns. Selling volatility options is one of the simplest leveraged strategies, but the point is this: Quant funds and traders will ratchet-up leverage in low volatility environments to increase returns amidst perceived lower risk. And, since volatility is at or near all-time lows (and has been for some time) these leveraged strategies are both abundant and large.

And, this all-time low volatility and explosion of leveraged strategies is coming right at a time when global central banks are reducing monetary accommodation  for the first time in, well, a decade.

So, while the analogy of fireworks sitting on top of a powder keg is a bit over the top, it does illustrate the general idea behind Kolanovic’s caution.

Bottom line, in my opinion, this report by itself isn’t a reason to materially de-risk, as the same argument could have been made about this market over the past few months (as it’s made new highs). But, Kolanovic is a smart guy, so his caution should be noted.

Finally, two anecdotal points. First, I believe what really spooked markets yesterday was that Kolanovic referenced this current set up as being similar to “Portfolio Insurance,” a strategy that failed miserably and contributed to the crash of 1987. Obviously, that’s not an uplifting analogy.

Second, for those of us watching the tape yesterday, the mini-freefall we saw in tech and specifically SOXX and FDN, was a bit unnerving. Things steadied, but the pace of the declines midday yesterday was a bit scary. That tells me these are very, very crowded trades, and I am going to have a “think” on potentially lightening up some exposure to that tech sector in favor of shifting it internationally (Europe, Japan, and perhaps emerging markets). Food for thought.

Getting back to the markets today, the Employment Cost Index is the key number to watch. If it’s hot, we could see yields rise, and that might pressure stocks mildly. Meanwhile, a soft reading will send yields lower and likely push stocks higher short term. Inflation remains a much more important influence on the markets right now than measures of economic growth.

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet, July 24, 2017

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Last Week in Review

The economic calendar picks up this week beginning with the flash PMI today (9:45 a.m. ET), as we continue to get an initial look at the July data. So far, the data has been a bit underwhelming as both the Empire and Philly Fed surveys came in light last week.

As far as hard data goes, Durable Goods comes out Thursday, and the preliminary second-quarter GDP number comes out Friday.

Housing data also picks up this week, and after last week’s mixed results (remember the Housing Market Index missed but Housing Starts was solid) economists will be looking for a better read on the current status of the real estate market. The two big reports this week are Existing Home Sales on Monday, and New Home Sales on Wednesday. However, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller HPI also will be worth watching (due out Tuesday). If the housing data is more in line with the strong Housing Starts data we saw last week, that will be an underlying positive for the economy and supportive for risk assets near term.

Turning to the central banks, the FOMC meets Tuesday and Wednesday, and the meeting will be concluded with an announcement on Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. There are no material changes expected to come from the meeting, and it would be a shock if rates were not left unchanged. There is no press conference or forecasts released with this meeting, but language in the statement will be closely watched for any further clues on the Fed’s plans to reduce the balance sheet, or on when rates will be raised. Right now, expectations are for a December hike, but based on the trend in other central bank rhetoric the risk is for a dovish development due to the complete lack of inflation acceleration.

This Week’s Preview

Economic data was thin last week, but we did get our first look at July data in the form of regional Fed outlook surveys as well as a few reports on the housing markets.

Beginning with the Fed surveys, the Empire State Manufacturing Survey was released on Monday, and despite the bad headline it was not a terrible report. The headline missed estimates (9.8 vs. E: 15.0), but the forward looking New Orders component remained solidly above 13. The reason the report was not that bad was the fact that it had started to run hot at unsustainable level recently, and was due for a dip. And the correction we saw in the June data wasn’t too deep, and the details remained encouraging.

The Philly Fed Survey out on Thursday was not as bad a miss as the Empire data on the headline (19.5 vs. E: 22.0), but the details definitely dimmed the outlook for the Mid-Atlantic manufacturing sector. The forward-looking component of the report, New Orders, fell more than 20 points to just 2.1. The survey Philly data last week finally started to show a decline in enthusiasm from the extremely strong survey reports we’ve seen since the election. If these reports are foreshadowing a pullback in the broader US economy, that would be very bad for stocks, as solid growth is still priced into the market at current levels.

Housing data was mixed last week as the Housing Market Index missed expectations, but Housing Starts and Permits were very solid. Data on the real estate market has been all over the place recently, and it will take more data to try to decipher where the trends actually are in the sector. But if the strong Starts and Permits data from last week are any indication (this is a more material data point than the Housing Market Index) that will be a sign of confidence in the US economy.

Lastly, jobless claims were very solid last week as new claims fell back towards a four-decade low. The very positive weekly report was significant, because the data collected corresponds with the survey week for the July BLS Employment report. So, based on jobless claims alone we can expect another very strong official employment report early next month.

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet, July 17, 2017

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Last Week in Review

Hard economic data continued to disappoint last week, as both inflation and economic growth statistics were a letdown. And while in the short term the markets embraced it, as it potentially makes the Fed less hawkish, longer term this is a potential problem as we need economic acceleration and higher inflation to power stocks materially higher.

Friday’s CPI report was the focus last week, as inflation has consistently been losing momentum since early 2017, and unfortunately that trend continued in June. Core CPI, which is the important metric in the report, rose 0.1% vs. (E) 0.2%, and 1.7% yoy. That continued a now four-month slowing of inflation, and unless this changes in the next month or two, it could alter expected Fed policy.

Specifically, while Friday’s disappointing data prompted calls from analysts to say the Fed won’t hike rates or reduce the balance sheet in September, we think that is premature. I believe it would take a material slowing of economic growth to cause the Fed not to start shrinking the balance sheet, and that is not what happened last week. With regards to rate hikes, if the inflation data doesn’t get better between now and October, then yes, the Fed will probably be on hold for a while. But, there’s a lot of time between now and October (think about how much changed during this period last year, when economic growth accelerated).

Looking at the other data last week, June Retail Sales was easily the most disappointing report. The “control” group (which is the key metric in the report, and reflects Retail Sales minus gas, autos and building materials) dropped to -0.1% vs. (E) 0.4%, and that is a potentially cautious signal for consumer spending.

Finally, Industrial Production looked like the one decent number last week, as the headline beat estimates at 0.4% vs. (E) 0.1%. However, it was a bump in mining activity that caused the headline to surge, and the more important manufacturing sub component just met expectations at 0.2%. Bottom line, last week’s data was a disappointment, and further confirmed the unsustainably wide gap between “hard” economic numbers and “soft” economic surveys (like the manufacturing PMIs), and that gap must be filled one way or the other.

From a market standpoint, in the short term the data will have a dovish effect. Longer term, this middling data is a threat. With global central banks becoming less dovish, economic growth must accelerate, and in the US that isn’t happening. Long term, that’s a problem for stocks.

This Week’s Preview

There are several notable economic reports out this week, including first looks at July economic activity, as well as the ECB meeting. But unless there are major surprises, the data shouldn’t really move the debate about reflation vs. stagnation.

The headline event this week is the ECB meeting, which comes Thursday. Other than parsing Draghi’s comments for hawkish or dovish hints, there shouldn’t be any surprises at this meeting. For the ECB, the outlook is they will announce tapering of the QE program at the September meeting, and that by mid-2018, ECB QE will be over. Nothing Thursday should change that expectation.

Looking at US data, we get our first look at July activity via the Empire Manufacturing Survey (today) and the Philly Fed Survey (Thursday). While anecdotally notable, both surveys haven’t been well correlated to the national manufacturing PMIs lately, and as such they aren’t likely to elicit much of a market reaction barring a big surprise.

Bottom line, this week’s economic events will give us more anecdotal insight into the current state of the economy, but really, it’s next week’s data (flash manufacturing PMIs) that’s the next potential market mover.

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Momentum Indicator Update, July 11, 2017

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About two months ago, as markets were grinding relentlessly higher despite underwhelming economic fundamentals, I identified four momentum indicators that would tell us when this market was losing momentum and when the chances for a pullback were rising.

Those four indicators were: 1) Consumer sentiment, 2) NYSE Advance/Decline line, 3) Semiconductors (SOXX) and 4) Super-cap internet (FDN).

Over the subsequent eight weeks, three of those four indicators have remained broadly positive. Only semiconductors have lost momentum (SOXX hit multi-month lows in Thursday’s selling). But while the three remaining momentum indicators are still giving positive signals, recently there have been some signs of fatigue.

First, FDN (First Trust DJ Internet Index Fund) held the June lows, but it’s stuck in a range currently and can’t seem to break to a higher high.

Second, the NYSE Advance/Decline line is sitting on an uptrend in place since late-February 2016, and if we get any sort of a nasty sell-off in the next few days (like we saw last Thursday) that trendline could break.

Finally, looking at consumer sentiment, unending skepticism towards this now eight-year-long rally remains its most consistent fuel; however, that may finally be changing.

Retail investor sentiment indicators remain overly cautious. The American Association of Individual Investors Bulls/Bears Sentiment is cautious, as there is just 29.6% bulls vs. a historical 38.5%. But, in a notable change, the number of bears also is below average (29.9% vs. the average of 30.5%).

The difference is made up in the “Neutral” category, which has surged to 40.6% vs. an average of 30.5%. Now, that’s not overtly bullish, but it anecdotally reflects the idea that you simply “must” be invested as they market grinds higher. And, that idea is in line with a recent similar reading from institutional investors.

Yesterday, I read a survey from Citi that showed institutional investors are holding their lowest levels of cash since before the financial crisis! According to survey respondents, in June the median cash holdings for institutional investors was just 2.5%, down sharply from the 7.5% level at the end of September 2016. That’s the lowest level of cash on hand since before the financial crisis.

The results from a Citi survey of institutional investors show that cash holdings by institutional investors are at the lowest level since before the financial crisis..png

Now, one statistic doesn’t mean an impending market pullback, but this survey data does generally correspond to the idea that the TINA trade (There is No Alternative to stocks) has finally, and begrudgingly, pulled the remainder of cash off the sidelines and into the market.

And, as history has taught us, we can all guess what happens next.

Regardless, the major point I’m trying to make here is this: We’re nearing a pretty substantial tipping point in markets, and while both the bulls and bears have points of evidence on their side, the benefit of the doubt remains, for now, with the bulls. Still, we need a continuation of the recent better economic data and better inflation numbers to power this market higher, otherwise the chances of some sort of a pullback will indeed rise.

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet, July 10, 2017

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet

Last Week in Review:

Reflation on? Not just yet, but last week’s data did imply that the US economy may be starting to gain more positive momentum, which will be much to the Fed’s relief after looking past recent soft economic data. Specifically, every major economic data point released last week beat expectations, and some handily so.

Before getting to those numbers, it’s important to address the biggest market-moving event last week: The ECB meeting minutes. Anticipation of those minutes, which were mildly hawkish, caused the German bund yield to break to a multi-year high above 0.5%, and that caused an acceleration in the decline in bonds/rise in yields that ultimately resulted in the 1% decline in stocks last Thursday.

The importance of the ECB minutes (and largely all the data from last week) was that it confirmed central banks do expect better growth and inflation, and that expectation is leading them to get less dovish, which is sending global bond yields higher.

The bottom line for the ECB and the Fed remains 1) The ECB is expected to begin to taper QE in January 2018, and end it completely in mid-2018, while the Fed is expected to begin to reduce the balance sheet in September, and hike rates again in December. The events of this week reinforced those expectations, which are largely priced into stocks and bonds at this point.

Turning to the economic data, it was good last week. The jobs report was the highlight, and it was strong. Job adds in June were 222k, solidly above the 170k estimate. However, wages were a slight disappointment, up just 0.2% and 2.5% yoy, which stopped the strong jobs report from being “Too Hot.”

Looking at the other two key numbers last week, the June ISM Manufacturing PMI and ISM Non-Manufacturing PMI, they also were strong. The Manufacturing PMI surged to the best level since August 2014, rising to 57.8 vs. (E) 55.1 while the Non-Manufacturing (or service sector) PMI rose to 57.4 vs. (E) 56.5. Details of both reports were also strong, as New Orders rose, suggesting continued momentum into the summer.

To a point, the data can be taken with a grain of salt, because there’s no question the jobs market remained strong in June (the weekly claims told us that) while the PMIs are still just “soft data” in so much as it’s survey data, and not hard economic data. Still, these numbers were good, and it does reinforce that we are seeing an emerging reflation in the economy, and an emerging reflation trade in markets.

This Week’s Preview:

Normally after the jobs report the following week is pretty quiet on the economic front. Yet that’s not so this week, as we get three very important economic numbers Friday.

June CPI is the highlight of the week, and it will be an important number for markets given the recent rise in yields. Since the Fed and other global central banks expressed surprising confidence in their respective economies in June, economic data has largely reinforced that expectation.

However, now it’s inflation’s turn. If inflation metrics show a further loss of momentum, that will undercut central bank’s expectation of future inflation, and could cause at least a mild reversal in the recent reflation trade (so bond yields down, banks/small caps/cyclicals down, defensives/tech up). Conversely, if CPI is strong, it will further prove central banks were right to look past the soft data, and the reflation trade will likely accelerate. So, this will be an important number regarding sector trade, and near-term performance in the broad market.

Also on Friday we get June Retail Sales and June Industrial Production. As previously mentioned, there is still a gap between soft, survey-based data (the PMIs) and hard, actual economic numbers. Given the strength in the PMIs, expectations for better actual economic data via Retail Sales and Industrial Production now is somewhat expected.

Finally, Fed Chair Yellen gives the second of her Humphrey-Hawkins testimonies this week, and she will address the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday and the House Financial Services Committee Thursday. The tone of her comments will obviously be closely watched, but with several years on the job, Yellen seems to have learned not to give anything away in these testimonies. Yet if her tone echoes the confidence in the economy and inflation that we saw in the June FOMC meeting, it will be at least a mild reinforcement of the reflation trade across assets (i.e. higher yields).

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet, June 12, 2017

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Weekly Market Cheat Sheet

Last Week in Review:

There were only a few economic releases last week and the Fed circuit was silent ahead of this week’s Fed events.

The headline of the ISM Non-Manufacturing PMI was largely in line with expectations at 56.9 for May, and the details matched as well. The one outlier was a sharp dip in the prices category, which fell to 49.2 from 57.6. It was the first sub-50 reading in 13 months. And while the one number by itself is not very alarming, pairing it with other soft price data of late, including the weak unit labor cost on Monday, inflation data is beginning to gain some attention. For now, it is just something to monitor and will not have a material effect on Fed policy yet.

Looking overseas, the EBC decision was the big event last week. As expected, rates were left unchanged and there were no changes in the QE program. The ECB changed their risk assessment to “balanced” and also removed the potential for lower interest rates going forward. Overall, the meeting was anti-climactic as a step was taken towards eventually ending QE, but no update on the timeframe was offered.

This Week’s Preview:

Focus will be on central banks this week as the Fed takes center stage Wednesday, the BOE is Thursday and the BOJ is Friday. The Fed will obviously attract the most attention as a rate hike is expected, but the outlook for future policy has grown cloudier. The market will be looking for any clues as to the number of rate hikes remaining in 2017, or whether the committee’s sentiment towards the economy has changed in recent months. We will have our full FOMC Preview in tomorrow’s Report.

As far as economic data goes, CPI and Retail Sales will both be released pre-market ahead of the FOMC on Wednesday (which we will provide a preview for, as always).

Later in the week we get the first look at June data from the Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey and the Empire State Manufacturing Survey as well as Industrial Production data for May. The latter will be important to see if the recent bounce in manufacturing data has continued at all in Q2 or not. Lastly on Friday, Housing Starts data for May will provide the latest update on the housing market.

Overseas, there are some important releases to watch beginning on Tuesday night with Chinese Fixed Asset Investment, Industrial Production, and Retail Sales all due at 10:00 p.m. ET. There are several second-tiered reports that may move market modestly if there are any surprises, but the only other report overseas really worth watching is the Eurozone HICP (their CPI) to see if inflation is firming at all or actually rolling over as some individual European country reports have shown (German CPI was -0.2 vs. E: -0.1% in May).

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Jobs Report Preview, May 5, 2017

For the first time in 2017, the risks to tomorrow’s jobs report are balanced, as a “Too Hot” number will increase the possibility of more than three rate hikes in 2017 while a “Too Cold” number will fan worries about the pace of economic growth, and the ability for better economic growth to push stocks materially higher.

Here’s The Sevens Report traditional “Goldilocks” breakdown:

“Too Hot” Scenario (Potential for More than Three Rate Hikes in 2017)

  • >250k Job Adds, < 4.6% Unemployment, > 2.9% YOY wage increase. A number this hot would likely reignite the debate over whether the Fed will hike more than three times this year.
  • Likely Market Reaction: Withheld for subscribers. Unlock with a free trial at 7sReport.com.

“Just Right” Scenario (A June Rate Hike Becomes More Expected, But the Total Number of Expected Hikes Stays at Three)

  • 125k–250k Job Adds, > 4.7% Unemployment Rate, 2.5%-2.8% YOY wage increase. This is the best-case scenario for stocks, as it would imply still-stable job growth, but not materially increase the chances for more than three rate hikes in 2017.
  • Likely Market Reaction: Withheld for subscribers. Unlock with a free trial at 7sReport.com.

“Too Cold” Scenario (A June Rate Hike Becomes in Doubt)

  • < 125k Job Adds. Given the recent unimpressive economic reports, a soft jobs number could cause a decent sell-off in equities. As the Washington policy outlook continues to dim, economic data needs to do more heavy lifting to support stocks. So, given the market’s focus on future growth, the bottom line is bad economic data still isn’t good for stocks.
  • Likely Market Reaction: Withheld for subscribers. Unlock with a free trial at 7sReport.com.

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