Which is Wrong: Data on Growth or Employment?

The WSJ’s Greg Ip is rapidly becoming a proverbial two-handed economist. Over the past week, he has written not one but two articles on the ambiguous nature of the macro-data that has been coming forward over the past few quarters.

The first article was last week’s Fitting Growth Data Into the Unemployment Puzzle and is timely, with prelim GDP data out tomorrow. This is fascinating issue I have been watching for many quarters now: When two (allegedly) reliable historical data points are in direct conflict, which one is correct? What should get more emphasis, and which should gets less?


"When the Commerce Department publishes first-quarter growth
estimates Friday, it will accentuate a puzzle with implications for interest
rates, growth and U.S. living standards: With the economy growing so slowly, why
is unemployment falling?

Explanations range from measurement problems to the peculiar
behavior of construction jobs to the possibility that productivity growth is

Wall Street estimates the economy grew 1.9% at an annual rate in
the first quarter, the slowest in more than a year. That would bring growth for
the past four quarters down to a sluggish 2.2%, below most economists’ estimates
of the economy’s potential growth rate, which hovers around 3%. Potential is the
rate at which the economy can grow over the long term, given growth in the work
force and worker productivity.

A year of below-potential growth ordinarily would push up
unemployment, because the economy isn’t growing fast enough to employ all the
new entrants to the work force. Instead, the unemployment rate has fallen to
4.4% in March from 4.7% a year earlier.

The answer to this puzzle has huge implications for inflation and
interest rates. For the Federal Reserve, the most troubling explanation is that
potential growth is closer to 2% than 3%. That may be because the work force is
growing more slowly for demographic reasons, or because productivity growth has
slowed, perhaps because companies are investing less in labor-saving

There are several potential answers to this puzzle:

1) Growth is not slowing, GDP measures ares all wrong.

2) Unemployment is not falling, BLS measures are incorrect.

3) The relationship between GDP and Unemployment have decoupled.

We know that growth overseas has been nothing short of robust — and perhaps globalization is seeing some spillover into the US economy in ways GDP doesn’t measure. That’s one possibility.

While the Unemployment Rate has notched down, new unemployment claims have moved higher; At the same time, the exhaustion rate — the measure of those people who have used up all their unemployment insurance benefits but have not found a job — is also higher. Another explanation is that the labor participation rate is falling as some unemployed leave the labor market entirely. 

Regardless of the explanation, these two data series seem to be in conflict. Traditionally, there should be a greater correlation between the two, and this implies something is off: Either Growth is better than reported, or Employment is worse than reported.   


On a related (two-handed) note, Ip follows up this morning with another interesting quandry: Why Market Strength And Economic Growth Don’t Always Line Up. He pits Merrill Lynch’s David Rosenberg against ISI’s Ed Hyman — thats a heavy wight battle for ya — on what this means to the market:

"Economists differ. David Rosenberg, chief North
American economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., thinks the market is
misleadingly optimistic. He says there is a "disconnect between how the
economy is doing and the way the equity market is doing." The U.S.
economy has just completed four quarters of annualized growth below 3%,
which, he says, has never happened in 60 years without being followed
by recession. While he doesn’t forecast one, he puts the risks higher
than generally realized.

But Ed Hyman, chief economist at ISI Group, a New York
investment dealer, says the market has it right. Just as in 1985 and
1995, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates enough to slow the
economy and bring inflation under control. That reassures investors
that even higher rates won’t be needed later that could tip the economy
into recession."

The full piece is worth a read . . .

UPDATE: April 26, 2007 10:06am

A perfect example of both the Employment/GDP issue as well as the Global/Domestic divergment is Monster Worldwide — they reported their quarterly profit fell — their sales rose 28%, in large part due to  a 64% jump in international careers business. Overseas sales is now over a third of their revenues . . .   


Fitting Growth Data Into the Unemployment Puzzle (free WSJ)
Greg Ip
WSJ, April 21, 2007; Page A2

Why Market Strength And Economic Growth Don’t Always Line Up
WSJ April 26, 2007; Page C1

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. REW commented on Apr 26

    BR said: “Another explanation is that the labor participation rate is falling as some unemployed leave the labor market entirely.”

    This is right on the money. While I am not convinced that a Wealth Effect exists that drives consumer spending, I do think it impacts the workforce. The stock market goes up, people take early retirement. We get a three year bear market and many of those folks look to go back to work. As the markets go back up, people leave the work force again (maybe they had two jobs and now only have one, or one spouse in a family stays home).

    I suspect we are seeing a lot of withdrawal from the workforce right now. Pessimists see this as a jobless recovery where folks simply give up looking for a good job. Optimists see it as an improvement in living standards.

  2. Nova Law commented on Apr 26

    In a country with 11 million illegal aliens at work, it is dubious to claim that there is mass unemployment that is hidden by those nefarious bureaucrats at BLS. It is very difficult to find help in my neck of the woods, which is not so unlike most areas of the country.

    I’m troubled, but not surprised, that some people can more easily believe in conspiracy theories about economic statistics than they can in full employment. After all, 40% of people believe in alien beings flying UFOs over Nevada.

  3. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    Nova Law, did you know “free checking accounts” add to GDP? What about owner’s imputed rent?

    I mean, if you own your home, EVERY year it gets computed into GDP how much you’d have to pay to rent that same home. Ugly statistics, aren’t they? So if more people own their homes, miracle, GDP is permanently higher since they are paying all those rents to themselves.

    Man, Casey Serin is pushing up GDP strongly, as a matter of fact. At one point he was paying himself rent on 8 homes!

  4. dark1p commented on Apr 26

    REW has a good point, but I think the basic reason the statistics seem out of whack is because we haven’t had realistic, accurate statistical reporting from the government in years. All of these numbers (like inflation ex-inflation) are computed using politically massaged methods. On top of that, revisions have become larger and large in relation to the first-reported number. This should be a major red flag to anyone who thinks there is any accuracy or scientific value involved. (Whoops, that 75 degree temperature we reported this morning? It was actually 62 degrees. Sorry.)

    If all able, working age people who aren’t working are included (see U6 in the quote below, just to start), I think the actual rate in this job-free ‘recovery’ is probably above 10%, and you can tack on another couple of percentage points if you count unemployed illegal aliens. If they’re still here and not working, that might be a better measurement of the country’s real workforce.

    To quote John Williams:

    “Suggesting that the household [unemployment rate] survey is more accurate than the payroll survey, however, does not mean the household survey accurately depicts unemployment. While its measures have definable statistical accuracy, the accuracy is related only to the underlying questions surveyed and to the universe of people surveyed.

    “The popularly followed unemployment rate was 5.5% in July 2004, seasonally adjusted. That is known as U-3, one of six unemployment rates published by the BLS. The broadest U-6 measure was 9.5%, including discouraged and marginally attached workers.

    “Up until the Clinton administration, a discouraged worker was one who was willing, able and ready to work but had given up looking because there were no jobs to be had. The Clinton administration dismissed to the non-reporting netherworld about five million discouraged workers who had been so categorized for more than a year. As of July 2004, the less-than-a-year discouraged workers total 504,000. Adding in the netherworld takes the unemployment rate up to about 12.5%.”

    Also, keep in mind the nature of the jobs being created. Job ‘growth’ is always heavily weighted in government and service businesses. Without government bureaucracy and its continuing bloat, even the reported numbers would look a lot worse.

  5. grodge commented on Apr 26

    You state:

    Traditionally, there should be a greater correlation between the two, and this implies something is off: Either Growth is better than reported, or Employment is worse than reported.

    But a few chapters above you hypothesize that one explanation is that GDP and employment have decoupled.

    The numbers you are looking at are US GDP and US employment. I would propose that we consider the GLOBAL economy, which has been becoming larger in relationship to the US.

    Perhaps the title of your next post should be called “The Decoupling”… or maybe just leave that to Tom Freidman.

  6. kharris commented on Apr 26

    Ocham to the rescue?

    Perhaps Ip is demanding too much from the data. Perhaps if we look just a bit harder for evidence that things aren’t too out ofu whack, we’ll find that things aren’t too out of whack. Ip’s job, after all, requires a good story, so Ip may have a bias toward seeing things out of whack when they aren’t.

    There is that other “O” guy (what’s his name?) who has a rule about the link between GDP around trend and changes in the jobless rate. That is at the heart of Ip’s point. The latest jobless reading of 4.4% was first posted in this cycle 6 months ago, and the 3-month average has been quite stable for 5 months. So while a look at the jobless rate chart can give the impression the rate is still falling, in the period of interest to us – the 3 below trend quarters for growth – the jobless rate has flattened out. We know that most labor market stats are coincident to lagging. If the jobless rate bottomed starting in the second of 3 quarters of below trend growth, in what way do we have a big disconnect? We can also see a modest slowing in the average rate of hiring. That may be due to tight labor supply, but perhaps also to cooling demand. Won’t know about that until we see compensation growth some quarters hence.

    So I have to go with Nova. Even if the official data are bad, one must argue that they are getting worse, in a systematic way during the period in question, in order to account for a disconnect between growth and labor stats. There is a disconnect between compensation and productivity, but I’m not convinced that the disconnect Ip has pointed is real.

  7. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    Both the CPI and GDP measures have been changing over time.

    CPI has had changes that lower it, GDP has had changes that make it higher.

    This means you can’t compare today’s CPI with the CPI in the past. And you can’t compare today’s GDP with the GDP in the past.

    And you can’t make international comparisons either. Most countries don’t use hedonic deflators, owner imputed rent, free checking accounts, etc.

    With a lower CPI for the same price action as in the past, and a higher GDP for the same economic activity as in the past, that means it’s much harder to have a recession “in the numbers” today, than it was in the past.

  8. wally commented on Apr 26

    Jacques Barzun defines a ‘decadent’ institution as one that is no longer capable of doing the job that people expect it to do. Sad to say, but many parts of the US government are there today. The can no longer be relied upon; they are politicized, which in turn means ‘bought’ or they have grown their bureaucracies to a point of collapsing under their own weight. You’d hope that things improve over time – that is what most Americans traditionally believe. But it is not true.

  9. Lauriston commented on Apr 26

    From Pisani we learn that 48% of SP500 profits come from overseas. Also, US markets have a many foreign companies listed. It should not come as a surprise then that the US economy and US markets are not lining up.

  10. Tom B commented on Apr 26

    “Jacques Barzun defines a ‘decadent’ institution as one that is no longer capable of doing the job that people expect it to do. Sad to say, but many parts of the US government are there today. The can no longer be relied upon; they are politicized, which in turn means ‘bought’ or they have grown their bureaucracies to a point of collapsing under their own weight….”

    My never-gonna-happen solution to fixing the government is a total ban on political advertising on broadcast media. Politicians take money (bribes) to pay for TV time, and have to reward the crooks that made big campaign donations. If politicians could not buy TV time, it would make them correspondingly less corrupt. How much can you get from a TV soundbite, anyway? How about position papers on the web and some number of non-commercial debates on TV among the candidates?

  11. Richard commented on Apr 26

    wonder how many readers of this blog who put most of their investments in cash are kicking themselves right now for listening to the big picture too literally and missing out on sizable gains. silly rabbit.

  12. grodge commented on Apr 26

    I agree with Lauriston. Barry, maybe your “big picture” isn’t big enough?

    Sure, the numbers can and will be massaged for political benefit, but also the numbers are way more complex in a global economy. Conclusions based on home prices in Kalamazoo Michigan, one Toyota quarter or capex spending trends in the US can be misleading in the really “big picture.”

    So far this quarter, S&P 500 companies are reporting earnings 6.2% above estimates with only a few companies missing their estimate.

    Unless all the S&P is in on the ruse, it looks like someone is earning money. Unlike the 2000 tech meltdown, PE’s today are reasonable, are they not?

    Is DOW 13,000 and SPX 1500 a bubble or a reflection of earnings based on a global economy?

    Get bigger.

  13. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    Richard, the same could be said of anyone being left outside any Ponzi scheme, before it imploded.

  14. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    “So far this quarter, S&P 500 companies are reporting earnings 6.2% above estimates with only a few companies missing their estimate.”

    grodge, most companies beat expectations even in the worst of times. You ought to ask yourself “why”.

    “Unless all the S&P is in on the ruse, it looks like someone is earning money. Unlike the 2000 tech meltdown, PE’s today are reasonable, are they not?”

    No, PE’s are not reasonable for the top of an economic/debt cycle. At the top of a cycle multiples are usually very low. Just check any cyclical industry, for instance steel now, or homebuilders back in 2005 (every one of them had a PE below 10 back then).

  15. wally commented on Apr 26

    “So far this quarter, S&P 500 companies are reporting earnings 6.2% above estimates with only a few companies missing their estimate.”

    Traditionally the stock market looks ahead, not back. Why is it different today?

  16. Fred commented on Apr 26

    Barry…are we, in your opinion, still in a secular bear market? (as index after index break out). I am curious at what point you change that view.

  17. JRip commented on Apr 26

    Taking care of some buildings I work with 3 contractors – roofing, construction and painting. Starting with roofing 6 years ago and finally this year painting, none of the business owners have any employees anymore.

    They all either hire a “Crew” from a company or “Rent” their workers from a rental company.

    The people I meet who are doing the work are pretty much the same people as they were in years past.

    Why? I ask.
    No unemployment or workmen’s comp insurance cost or risk. The workers are all “hired for the day” even though the project make take months.
    Sure – the people-rental fees include government fees but some fees would change by the history (layoffs or injuries) of the employer which could be a big swing for a small employer – that does not happen anymore.

    The workers are now self-employed contractors who are fired daily thus never really laid off.

    No immigration risk. The company that rents out the staff does all the employment paperwork and takes the hit for “illegals”.

    NET: none of these people will be unemployed when not working.
    How big a drop in employment?

    From an article about money flows through central banks in the WSJ this past Monday:
    “Monthly remittances from the U.S. to Mexico have dropped every month since their peak of $2.6 billion in May 2006 — shortly before new- home construction in the U.S. plunged. In February 2007, the latest month for which data are available, remittances to Mexico had slowed to $1.7 billion.”

  18. LAEF2 commented on Apr 26

    I think we should be looking at income statistics (including benifits) as a measure since unemployment is so low. Meaningful employment is probably in the crapper.

  19. V L commented on Apr 26

    I think BLS excluding persons on active duty in the Armed Forces can explain low unemployment and excluding “all inmates of institutions” from the labor force pool — both have spiked lately.

    “Who is not in the labor force?
    Excluded are persons under 16 years of age, all inmates of institutions and persons on active duty in the Armed Forces.”


    In addition, according to BLS the data is unreliable “at economic turning points or during periods when there are sudden changes in trend”. Currently, we are at “economic turning point”; therefore, BLS estimates are incorrect (according to BLS).

    “The most significant potential drawback to this or any model-based approach is that time series modeling assumes a predictable continuation of historical patterns and relationships and therefore is likely to have some difficulty producing reliable estimates at economic turning points or during periods when there are sudden changes in trend.”

  20. grodge commented on Apr 26

    Thank you for your comment. I’m not an economist– as you could likely figure.

    Are the cyclical indicators of US housing and US employment and even US GDP appropriate when looking at the global econmy, or should they be tempered by other numbers, say, the Shanghai housing index or the Pac Rim employment data?

    Granted, many of these numbers are not available and much of the conjecture is based on unknown worldwide data.

    For example, Domestic home building may be in a bear market, but worldwide steel may be in the midst of a bull market, in other words, they are decoupled.

    The US consumer may be at “the top of an economic/debt cycle”, but where is the rest of the world? US companies are servicing and supplying the entire world and looking at, say, US consumer confidence, does not necessarily predict how much steel US Steel will export or how much tobacco MO will export.

    Could that be the reason for the disconnect?

  21. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    grodge, China is the largest steel producer by a VERY large margin, and China is now a net steel exporter.

    As for the ciclicality around the world, the debt/housing bubble was far from being a US-centric event, it happened in a lot of other places as well: Australia, France, Spain, Holland, UK, Ireland, etc. It didn’t get the “stated income” features of the US bubble but close.

    These debt/Housing bubbles are all nearing their end at the same time.

    On the positive side, much of the developing world is indeed developing. But economies are mostly local, the effects of the debt/housing bubbles are much stronger than the effects of the developing world.

    For instance, new debt in the US comes to about 20-25% of the GDP, if new debt slows the GDP will implode (also, there’s around 5-20% of the GDP which is mostly made up, but that’s another story).

  22. michael schumacher commented on Apr 26


    enough with the illegal aliens…how many times are YOU going to use that.

    THis is the same person who puts words in other peoples mouths and then derides them for any position other than his own.

    Are you now blaming illegal aliens for everything?? You are for the BLS #’s

    BTW if we did’nt have all these “illegal aliens” I hope you and you’re precious attitude enjoy paying over $7 for a head of lettuce.



  23. grodge commented on Apr 26

    Thanks. So the conclusion is….

    The DJIA and SPX are bubbly?

    By “the GDP will implode”, what do you mean… revised from 3% to 2.5%? If that happens, won’t interest rates just decline to spur more borrowing, spending and investment?

    If inflation is as big an issue as implied by the data, then why is there so much excess liquidity flooding the stock market? Is it all the fed?

    I’ve got cash sitting and I’ve been waiting for this implosion for a year that doesn’t seem to be happening.

    Just trying to understand.

  24. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    The bubble this time is different, it’s not that the SPX, DJIA, RUT, DAX, etc are bubbly. It’s that the bubble is inflating the fundamentals themselves.

    Stocks are very expensive only because they trade at a rather normal multiple of overvalued fundamentals.

    By “the GDP would implode” I can’t advance any numbers. The situation right now, debtwise, is worse that before the Great Depression in 1929. But I guess anything that happens will be less drastic.

  25. Nova Law commented on Apr 26

    Point of clarification for Grodge and Incognitus:

    Earnings for S&P 500 companies reporting are up 6.2% year-over-year, not 6.2% over estimates.


    This is not an issue of under-predicted earnings beating the estimates, but an actual 6.2% gain in earnings since the 2006 quarter.

    Let me save you bears your time:

    “6.2% growth? Full of accounting lies!”

    “ONLY 6.2%?”

    “6.2%, but if you back out all the profitable companies, it’s -25.5% for earnings.”

    “6.2% earnings growth is a sure sign of a recession, since last year earnings were up more than 10% over 2005.”

    “How many gold coins can I buy with 6.2% growth?”

    Flying saucer alert!

  26. grodge commented on Apr 26

    Another point: I fully understand the meme about 5-20% of the data being made up (which is largely why I changed careers from research science to medicine– where the endpoints are, shall we say, more determinative: patients either improve or die.)

    So, if macroeconomics is inherently disaffected by factitious data, then why would anyone use it for practical day-to-day trading?

  27. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    Nova Law, earnings will beat economic growth for as long as debt taken by families expands.

    Consumption by families = family income + increase in debt. Revenues of companies roughly = consumption by families. Largest cost for companies = labor (which is family income).

    So, as long as debt expands, revenues grow faster than the largest cost, and thus profits expand.

    So, a significant part of today’s revenues and profits are just increased debt by families. Guess what happens when that debt stops increasing (also, bear in mind that to achieve increases, even unemployed were allowed to borrow millions … if that doesn’t say “top” nothing else will).x

  28. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    “So, if macroeconomics is inherently disaffected by factitious data, then why would anyone use it for practical day-to-day trading?”

    Beats me. But to close the eyes to what is happening makes no sense either.

    In part the market is going up because of a mechanical effect:
    1) Debt is taken by the whole population, and used to buy goods and services provided mostly by companies;
    2) Equity in those companies is held by the top 10% most wealthy (they hold about 93% of the equities);
    3) Hence, increased profits flow mostly to the top decile …
    4) … which happens to have a higher propensity to invest (buy assets/equities) than the other 90% of the population.

    Hence, large increases in debt = large increases in profits = large increases in inequality = large increases in asset prices. Even when the economy is no longer expanding much (but debt still is).

  29. SF commented on Apr 26

    The U.S. economy has just completed four quarters of annualized growth below 3%, which, he says, has never happened in 60 years without being followed by recession. While Merrill’s Rosenberg doesn’t forecast one, he puts the risks higher than generally realized.

  30. Turbo commented on Apr 26

    Employment lags gdp – jobs are slow to come back after a recesion, and layoffs don’t occur right away when the economy slows down.

    And I know the bulls will jump all over this, but when coporate earnings are growing at 11% a year, a 15 market p/e is probably right about fair value. Now that corporate earnings have slowed to 6%, a market PEG ratio of 2.5 is very expensive. You have to believe corporate earnings are going back to double digits in the very near future to continue buying the market.

  31. Estragon commented on Apr 26

    In considering this sort of argument (in essence, an assertion that a relationship between variables has broken), I find it useful to ask myself two questions:
    1. How significant are the changes in the variables themselves in the context of past history.
    2. How significant is the change in the relationship between the variables in the context of past history.

    In the best spirit of info-porn, I submit for your consideration the following:

    It’s fairly clear that unemployment tends to rise if GDP growth falls meaningfully (recession bars), but with about a one year lag. Less meaningful “noise” in GDP has little obvious correlation with unemployment. It’s also fairly clear that the change in GDP growth is (so far) relatively small.

    So the answers to my questions are:
    1. We don’t *yet* have data to support the notion of a meaningful change in the variables.
    2. Even if we get a meaningful change in GDP, we shouldn’t expect a meaningful change in unemployment for about a year.

    In other words, nothing broken or decoupled here folks, move along.

  32. Dan Katzman commented on Apr 26

    One other major change in our world is the large decline in the value of a dollar. From the perspective of a Euro investor, the US stock market run up has been downright mild. The foreign earnings of S&P 500 companies has now risen to almost half of reported income and a noticeable slice of the growth has been helped by exchange rate changes. The US only earnings growth is weak and is partially explained by carry over from the strong international growth.

    BR – Has anyone published a view of US stock and economic data based on a Euro or a basket of currency perspective?

  33. SubPrimeiPhone commented on Apr 26

    Given the importance of objective measures for statistics like these, are there sources independent of the US government that might be more reliable?

    How about proxies for the margins, like the percent of credit card late payments from Experian, anti-depressant consumption rates, or rates of emergency room visits for routine health care?

  34. grodge commented on Apr 26

    Thanks. Your explanation makes sense when you put it in those terms. Debt will continue to feed earnings… until it doesn’t.

    There is a similar analogy in medicine, but it’s not appropriate in this venue.

    Nova, thanks for the correction on the earnings growth data.

  35. Incognitus commented on Apr 26

    “Thanks. Your explanation makes sense when you put it in those terms. Debt will continue to feed earnings… until it doesn’t.”

    There exists a reason to believe were close to the “doesn’t”. It hasn’t got much to do with ratios, debt versus income, absolute debt, etc, etc. Those could always go higher.

    It has to do with the fact that even unemployed, incomeless, assetless, people were allowed to borrow millions of dollars during 2005 and 2006. It can’t get any looser than that. So, it will inevitably become tighter, which is all one has to know, to guess that the debt fueled expansion is about to hit a wall.

  36. Philippe commented on Apr 26

    The earnings outlay would be more representative if introduced as total earnings and not earnings per share. According to MSDW the shares buy back have improved the earnings per share on the SP by 300 BP.

  37. Chris commented on Apr 26

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always understood unemployment to be a lagging economic indicator.

  38. Winston Munn commented on Apr 26

    There are 3 obvious reasons for the apparent disconnect among GDP, unemployment and the refusal of the stock market to fall.

    1. It’s different this time.
    2. Efficient market theory agrees it is different this time.
    3. The soft landing has stimulated aircraft sales.

  39. mhm commented on Apr 26

    “3. The soft landing has stimulated aircraft sales.”

    Improved landing gear might indeed stimulate aircraft sales, due to passenger demand.

    Or those aircraft will be used to haul away what can be, before the boat sinks.

  40. Winston Munn commented on Apr 26

    There is one other possible explanation that should be investigated to explain the mysterious lack of new claims filed.

    It may simply be that all new claims are being processed through Karl Rove’s e-mail server.

  41. theroxylandr commented on Apr 26

    What contradiction??????

    Employment always peaks right before recession. Sometimes even during recession. Predicting recession by watching employment is absurd – it’s not a leading indicator of any kind. You can use last quarter GDP reports for predicting recession – it could be even more useful than employment :-)

    Last recession started when unemployment was around 4.5%.

  42. Dirk van Dijk commented on Apr 26

    Just for the record about the state of earnings for the first quarter. The numbers are through Tuesday’s close. This is a cross post of what I put up on Zacks.com (I’m Director or Research at Zacks)

    If the hurdle is set low enough, even FDR could get over it. That is pretty much the case with the first quarter earnings season so far. Year over year growth is well below the low teens rate we have been seeing, quarter after quarter, for years now, but earnings are coming in well ahead of expectations. With over 36% of S&P 500 reports in so far, positive surprises are trouncing disappointments by a ratio of 4.6 to one. This is well ahead of the 3 to 3.5 to one ratio that most quarters in the past few years have finally settled in at. However, in the past there has been some tendency for the surprise ratio to fade a bit as the final reports come in. The median surprise of 3.0% is in line with what we have seen in the recent past. Every sector has more positive surprises than disappointments. In terms of year over year growth, Energy is currently in the lead with 33% growth, but that will undoubtedly fall significantly when all is said and done. Health Care is doing very well with 13.9% year over year growth and positive surprises leading disappointments by 4:1 and a 5.7% median surprise. The Materials and Industrial sectors are also enjoying overwhelming positive surprises and double digit growth. The laggards are the Tech sector, which is the only one showing negative year over year growth (why do people persist in thinking Tech equals growth?). However, even Tech is enjoying more than twice as many positive surprises as disappointments. Financials, the only sector with more than half of the reports in, is also relatively weak showing only 7.3% year over year growth and a median surprise of 2.6%. Consumer Staples is also showing relatively low growth but that growth is much better than was expected.

  43. ac commented on Apr 26

    Earnings are overrated and ALWAYS overstated. Nothing more than Orwellian BS. The 90’s taught me that. Expectations, plah!!!

    It is the economy stupid. Right now, the belief that no essential downturn will effect the economy keeps things positive. The correction in 2000 didn’t start in March, but September that year as the Nas recovered from its correction. But the feeling was the expansion was over, stocks stopped going up and up and up……..you get the message.

    They were right. Same mental condition arises, stocks will go down. Got it now?

  44. brian commented on Apr 26

    > Has anyone published a view of US stock >and economic data based on a Euro or a >basket of currency perspective?

    Sure just read Jeff Saut’s commentary this week:

  45. Winston Munn commented on Apr 26


    Thanks for the informative post. I would like to ask, though, if you have any idea how many of those reporting are hitting, missing, or upside surprising previously revised downward estimates. Also, it would interesting to know what percentages are acknowledging future guidance versus lowering future guidance.

    And what I would really, really like to see is some bright and energetic soul work his way through all those financial reports and give a 1-10 estimate on the “quality of the earnings” reported.

    I mean, how do you know what the future guidance game is when a major homebuilder takes his guidance ball home and refuses to play; and how can you believe any current hit or miss when you have things like a well-known California S&L showing 68% of its net interest income from capitalized negative amortizations?

    It is the Mr. Rodgers world of earnings and guidance: “Kids, can you say Enron and WorldCom?”

  46. jyyr commented on Apr 26

    While overseas earnings of US companies are strong, anecdotally it appears that the contribution is due to purchases of capital equipment from the developing world. Capital goods is at the early stage of investment where the goods will be used to produce intermediate and final goods. Example is Caterpillar. We have to ask ourselves where are the end products headed to? To the consumers of the developing world or to the US?

    The main risk as highlighted by Stephen Roach is that developing markets are in fact more dependent on the US as an export market than ever. For almost every country in Asia, exports to the US as a % of GDP has gone up since the 1990s. The consumer markets in Asia are still relatively weak and savings rates are still very high. So I suspect that the investment in capital goods in the developing world is ultimately to increase production of goods for exports to the US.

    Of course, overseas earnings of US companies are robust as Asian companies have so far seen a strong US consumer. It is logical for Asian companies to continue investing in capital goods. However, the past 3 months retail sales have been lackluster and consumption seems to be slowing down. As that happens, we can expect Asian companies to cut back. It is a lagged effect.

    As for earnings 6.2% growth YoY, that is below the analyst earnings estimates at the start of the year of +8%. That had been cut by 3% by the start of the earning reporting season. So earnings beat lowered expectations not the initial ones.

  47. Winston Munn commented on Apr 26

    “As for earnings 6.2% growth YoY, that is below the analyst earnings estimates at the start of the year of +8%. That had been cut by 3% by the start of the earning reporting season.”

    So, did the companies beat expectations or did the analysts miss the downward revised estimates?

    Is the glass half-full or half-empy?

    The engineer’s answer: neither, the glass is too big.

    I think the wise course of action for a prudent investor at this point in time is to become intimately acquainted with the type of liquidity that is served with an olive or a twist, and once that intimacy has obliterated all reason, common sense, and descretion, throw darts blindfolded at an atlas of all the listed companies on the exchanges and unload long on whichever one fate picks.

    Hopefully, the darts will land on one that has had estimates and guidance revised downwards two or three times.

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