Bracing for a Halt: March 16 – 20

This past week’s jobless claims data is only a taste of what is about to come. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 20.

#1Jobless surged in mid-March, and that was only the tip of the iceberg. The Department of Labor reported that there were a seasonally adjusted 281,000 first-time claims made for unemployment insurance benefits during the week ending March 14. The surge of 70,000 applications from the prior week was the fourth largest jump in the 53-year history of the data series. The four-week moving average of first-time claims jumped by 16,500 to 232,250. Next week’s claims data will be historic as the full force of COVID-19 business shutdowns shows up, with some forecasters anticipating next week’s estimate showing two or three million claims. The DOL press release noted that many states reported pandemic-related layoffs with the impact centered on “service related industries broadly and in the accommodation and food services industries specifically, as well as in the transportation and warehousing industry.”

#2The Fed cut its short-term interest target to near zero percent and took other actions to support the credit markets. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) canceled its two-day meeting scheduled for last week but voted to cut its fed funds target rate by a full percentage point to a range between 0.00 and 0.25 percent. This followed a half-percentage point cut earlier in the month. The statement noted that “the coronavirus outbreak has harmed communities and disrupted economic activity.” The FOMC expects to maintain this target rate until “it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.” Other steps taken by the Fed include an asset purchasing program for Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, the creation of a facility to inject liquidity into the money market fund market (including those linked to short-term state and municipal securities), and an expansion of its overnight and term repurchase agreement operations.

#3Leading indicators edged up in February for a final hurrah. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Indicators added 1/10th of a point during the month to a reading of 112.1 (2016=100), following an 8/10ths of a point advance in January. Only four of the LEI’s ten components made positive contributions. The coincident index advanced by 3/10ths of a point to 107.6 while the lagging index rose by 4/10ths of a point to 109.1. The subhead of the press release said it all: “Improvement in [the] Index Will Not Continue into March.” Noting the sharp declines in the stock prices, consumer sentiment, and hours worked, the press release concluded that “the economy may already be entering into a period of contraction.” 

#4Retail sales fell in February. The Census Bureau indicates that U.S. retail and food services sales dropped 0.5 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $528.1 billion. Some of the softness came from weakness at auto dealers/parts stores (-0.9 percent) and gas stations (with lower prices pulling down sales 2.8 percent). But even core retail sales were off 0.2 percent from January. There was weakness across most retail sectors; including, electronics/appliance stores (-1.4 percent), building materials retailers (-1.3 percent), apparel stores (-1.2 percent), restaurants/bars (-0.5 percent), furniture retailers (-0.4 percent), and department stores (-0.2 percent). Retail sales were up 4.3 percent from a year earlier, with core sales having a 12-month comparable of +4.4 percent.

#5Manufacturing output continued struggling in February. Even though the Federal Reserve finds manufacturing production grew a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent during the month, with output 0.4 percent below that of a year earlier. Durable goods production gained 0.3 percent, boosted by motor vehicle production, while nondurables output declined 0.1 percent, pulled down by textiles, petroleum/coal products, and chemicals. Overall industrial production rose 0.6 percent in February, matching its year-ago level. Mining output slumped 1.5 percent while utility output surged 7.1 percent (with both electric and gas utilities reporting large increases).

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Existing Home Sales (February 2020, Sales of Previously Owned Homes, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 5.77 million units (+6.5% vs. January 2020, +7.2% vs. February 2019).
Job Openings and Labor Turnover (January 2020, Nonfarm Job Openings, seasonally adjusted): 6.963 million (+411,000 vs. December 2019, -557,000 vs. January 2019).
Business Inventories (January 2020, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $2.035 trillion (-0.1% vs. December 2019, +1.1% vs. January 2019).
Housing Market Index (March 2020, Index (>50=More Homebuilders Viewing Housing Market as “Good” vs. Being “Poor,” seasonally adjusted): 72 (vs. February 2020: 74, vs. March 2019: 62).
Treasury International Capital Flows (January 2020, Net Foreign Purchases of U.S. Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +$28.0 billion (vs. December 2019: +$65.7 billion, vs. January 2019: -$24.8 billion).

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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