THE MONTH IN BRIEF
September brought an economic event that was widely expected: a quarter-point cut in short-term interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It also brought an attack on two of the world’s largest oil fields that threatened to dent global crude output. A resumption of U.S.-China trade talks was scheduled for October, and White House officials decided to delay some planned tariff increases. Clear signals of an economic slowdown emerged from both the eurozone and China; some of the key U.S. economic indicators looked much better by comparison. While all these events transpired, the S&P 500 gained 1.72% for the month.
DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH
As futures traders widely anticipated, the Federal Reserve lowered the benchmark interest rate by 0.25% on September 18. The 7-3 vote of the Federal Open Market Committee left the federal funds rate in a range of 1.75%-2.00%. As the less-than-unanimous vote hinted, Fed policymakers shared little consensus about the outlook for rates for the balance of the year. The Fed also released its latest dot-plot chart (a Fed tool that projects the cost of borrowing money in the future). According to the new dot-plot forecast, ten Fed officials saw no more cuts for the rest of the year, but seven others felt at least one more cut would happen before 2020.
On September 14, two of the world’s largest oil producing facilities were hit by drone attacks. The damage to these Saudi Arabian plants reduced daily global crude output by about 5% and sent the price of oil soaring when commodities markets opened the following Monday. The price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, the U.S. benchmark, jumped more than $8 during the September 16 trading session to close at $62.90 on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). The price soon fell, however. On September 30, a barrel of WTI crude was $54.20.[3,4]
Trade representatives from the U.S. and China were scheduled to restart negotiations on October 10. At mid-month, White House officials said that a planned 5% increase in tariffs on certain Chinese imports would be postponed from October 1 to October 15 to honor a request made by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. Late in the month, stocks fell on a rumor that the White House was considering limits on U.S. investment in Chinese companies.[5,6]
Employers added 130,000 net new workers in August, and only 96,000 were private-sector hires. The main jobless rate remained at 3.7%, but the U-6 rate, which also counts the underemployed, rose from 7.0% to 7.2%. Annualized wage growth stayed at 3.2%.
A much-watched gauge of U.S. manufacturing, the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly Purchasing Managers Index, fell below 50 in August. That news broke early in September, and the number (49.1) was important because any reading below 50 signals sector contraction. Meanwhile, ISM’s Non-Manufacturing PMI came in at 56.4 in August, showing expansion in the U.S. service sector for the 115th straight month. That 56.4 was its best mark since May.
Data concerning consumers was mixed. Retail sales rose another 0.4% in August, bringing the year-over-year advance to 4.1%. Personal spending increased 0.1% in the eighth month of the year, though personal incomes rose 0.4%. The Conference Board’s September Consumer Confidence Index fell to 125.1 in September (it was at 134.2 in August); the final September University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index rose, month-over-month, from 89.8 to 93.2.
Overall consumer prices ticked up 0.1% in August, leaving annualized inflation at just 1.7%. Core consumer prices (minus food and fuel costs) were up 2.4% across the 12 months ending in August, though.
GLOBAL ECONOMIC HEALTH
Last month, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced that it was starting another asset-purchase campaign to try and stimulate the eurozone economy, with no end date in mind. Outgoing ECB president Mario Draghi (soon to be succeeded by longtime International Monetary Fund chair Christine Lagarde) noted that the eurozone economy might be in for a “prolonged sag.” The Manufacturing PMI for the eurozone dropped to 50.4 in September, near the 50-mark, delineating sector contraction from sector expansion. Germany’s Factory PMI sank to 41.4 in September, a 10-year low.[10,11]
The United Kingdom’s highest court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s summer decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. Despite calls for him to resign, Johnson refused to step down after the September 24 ruling, while maintaining that Brexit would still happen by Halloween.
China’s year-over-year industrial output slowed to a 4.4% pace in August, down from what was already a 17-year low of 4.8% in July. Economists polled by Reuters thought the August number would be 5.2%. The nation’s annual pace of retail sales also declined in August to 7.5%. Oxford Economics forecasts a 2019 gross domestic product of just 6.1% for China, declining to 5.7% in 2020.
Along with the S&P 500, many foreign indices posted September gains – in fact, it is hard to find a September loss for any consequential benchmark. In the Americas, Brazil’s Bovespa rose 3.90%; Argentina’s Merval, 17.35%. Canada’s TSX Composite advanced 1.35%. Spain’s IBEX 35 improved 4.90%; France’s CAC 40, 3.60%. The regional FTSE Eurofirst 300 index gained 3.51%, and the FTSE 100 index, tracking stocks in the United Kingdom, rose 2.79%.
Turning to the Asia-Pacific region, the Nikkei 225 jumped 5.08% in September. South Korea’s Kospi and India’s Nifty 50 indices respectively added 4.84% and 4.09%. India’s other equity benchmark, the Sensex, rose 3.57%. Taiwan’s TSE 50 improved 2.71%, Australia’s All Ordinaries, 1.53%; Hong Kong’s Hang Seng, 1.43%; China’s Shanghai Composite, 0.66%. The MSCI EAFE index, a benchmark for developed stock markets outside the U.S., rose 2.54%.[14,15]
Oil actually lost 1.76% across September, even with its mid-month price leap. WTI crude ended the month at $54.20 on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). Crude at least outperformed unleaded gasoline, which fell 2.47%. Heating oil, on the other hand, rose 3.70%; natural gas improved 2.11%.
With winter approaching, important crops advanced across the board: cocoa gained 15.22% for the month; wheat, 10.11%; corn, 8.40%; coffee, 7.77%; soybeans, 5.45%; sugar, 3.50%; cotton, 3.13%.
The U.S. Dollar Index rose 0.60% in September to a month-ending close of 99.39. Silver dropped 6.63% for the month to a September 30 NYMEX close of $17.08. Gold also had a down September, losing 3.19% to a month-ending value of $1,479.40. Palladium futures retreated 5.65% for the month, but copper futures added 0.93%.[4,16]
Between late August and late September, mortgage rates rose. Freddie Mac’s September 26 Primary Mortgage Market Survey showed an average interest rate of 3.64% for the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage and 3.16% for the 15-year, fixed-rate mortgage. Back on August 29, the 30-year FRM bore an average interest rate of 3.58%; the 15-year FRM, an average interest of 3.06%.
Existing home sales were up 1.3% in August, according to the National Association of Realtors. (There was a 2.5% gain in July.) The NAR also reported a 1.6% gain for pending home sales in the eighth month of the year. There was more good news regarding home sales: Census Bureau said that new home buying increased 7.1% in August.
In another healthy sign for the real estate sector, August saw a major jump in housing starts. They rose 12.3%, by the estimation of the Census Bureau. Building permits were up 7.7%.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
On Wall Street, the turbulence of August gave way to a bit more stability in September, and equities made strides. The S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Nasdaq Composite all were positive for the month. Their closing levels, on September 30: S&P 500, 2,976.73; Dow, 26,916.83; Nasdaq, 7,999.34. The S&P Smallcap 600 advanced 3.15%.
The next earnings season is less than two weeks away. Earnings growth is one of the pillars supporting the stock market, and if earnings are strong and forecasts are solid, that may help to dispel, or at least ease, anxieties on Wall Street about a slowing economy. Weak earnings would invite questions about whether companies are going to keep investing and hiring at their present pace.
TIP OF THE MONTH
One school of household money management says that you should strive to pay down your smallest-balance debt first. Doing that frees up money to pay off larger balances.
QUOTE OF THE MONTH
“Success is that old ABC – ability, breaks, and courage.” -Charles Luckman
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