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Wall Street Narratives Distort Reality; A Deep Recession Is Rapidly Approaching



Volatility remains the major feature of financial markets. You are correct if you interpret the word “volatility” to include a downtrend in equity prices. This is the kind of action one normally sees in a “Bear” market. The table below shows the changes in the major U.S. indexes from their year-end peak values to the end of April, May and to the close of business on Friday, June 10. It wasn’t a pretty week with the major indexes down between 3.0% and 5.4%. Both the Nasdaq and the Russell 2000 are well into “Bear” market territory while the S&P 500 may well be there next week. It appears that, contrary to the narrative on Wall Street that the approaching recession will be “mild” and won’t occur until next year, investors are recognizing that the recession will be ugly and will likely come sooner than later.

Part of the issue for the markets is the inflation scenario. We deal with it in detail later in this blog. The 8.6% Y/Y CPI print on Friday was the catalyst for Friday’s sell-off. As shown in the table, while markets took a breather in May (“Bear” market rally), the downtrend reignited this past week.

The chart at the top of this blog shows a comparison of the top-10 equity market sell-offs during the first five months of the year. Note that, despite the rhetoric coming out of Wall Street and the May “Bear” Market rally, as of the end of May, over the 122-year period, the severity of the equity sell-off is tied for third.

Employment – What the Data Says

In today’s world, the media, including the financial media, appear to report with a point of view. Without digging deeper, one would never get the whole story. We reported in our May 9th blog that the +428k net new jobs number reported in the Payroll Survey for April was closer to +148k once all the nuances were considered. While the headline was lower than April’s, May’s Payroll Report (+390k) was somewhat better. But again, after considering that about +100k was added from the assumed growth of small businesses (the Birth/Death imputed add-on), the counted number of +290k falls to under +200k if ADP’s count of small business jobs (-92k) is used. Hence, this number was on the weaker side. Nowhere did we see any mention that the Retail Sector laid off -61k, or that the factory workweek and overtime hours declined. In fact, overtime hours are down three months in a row; the first time this has happened in seven years. In addition, those working part-time for economic reasons (they can’t find full time because business is slow) rose by +349k and has now risen in three of the last four months.


ADP is the largest payroll purveyor in the U.S. They are able to count the number of employees who get paid from their internal records, and they can divide them by the size of the businesses they serve. The ADP data is trending lower, much lower as seen from their monthly total employment estimates: Dec: +780k; Jan: +512k; Mar: +249k; May: +128k. For small businesses, which are much more sensitive to changes in the economic environment than are large businesses, ADP’s numbers show May: -92k and April: -123k. Year to date, the number for small business employment is -278k. In addition, the weekly data on Initial Jobless Claims, while still fairly low, have started to increase, and layoff announcements (Challenger) are on the rise. Thus, we think that the employment data will continue to deteriorate as the year progresses.

The New “Narrative”

In the face of deteriorating employment data and, worse, poor Q1 results from major retailers (see below), the Wall Street narrative has changed from a “strong” economy to that of a “mild” recession that won’t arrive until next year. The incoming data say something much different.

Let’s start with Q1 corporate reports. In mid-May, Walmart WMT (WMT) and Target TGT (TGT GT ) reported sales, earnings and guidance that disappointed Wall Street analysts. Both said that consumers purchased fewer “discretionary” items. WMT said consumers spent more on food and less on discretionary items. Home Depot (HD) and Kohls (KSS) offered much of the same, so it appears that the Retail Sector is reeling (per the -61k layoffs in May in this sector noted above). But the weakness is not confined to Retail. Both Microsoft MSFT (MSFT) and Tesla TSLA (TSLA) disappointed with TSLA announcing a 10% workforce reduction! Also note that, of the four major indexes shown in the table above, it is the Nasdaq (tech heavy) and the Russell 2000 (small businesses) that are down the most. The fall in the Russell doesn’t surprise us because small businesses are much more sensitive to the economic environment than are large ones. But the fact that investors have run from tech should be of concern. MSFT’s miss may be prescient.

There must be a reason why Retail is behaving so poorly (remember consumption is 70% of GDP!). The chart below says it all. Despite the fact that wages have risen at a faster pace over the past year and a half than they had for many years, inflation has risen even faster, so real (inflation adjusted) earnings are falling behind. Note in the chart below that falling real earnings are often associated with recessions. It isn’t really rocket science!

The Inventory Overhang

Inventories are too high. One could have gleaned that from the TGT and WMT reports that consumers purchased fewer discretionary items. Over the past year wholesale inventories are up 24% and retail inventories 15% and stand at a 38-year high. We also note that the CA ports are reporting near record unloadings. That indicates that supply chains are becoming unclogged and that inventories will rise further.

Much of this appears to have been a function of the “shortage” narrative that was a major theme in 2021. That narrative caused businesses to order early as they worried about not having goods on their shelves. Now they have the goods, but consumers aren’t buying them. We expect this excess inventory will go “on sale.” (That should help the inflation issue!) In fact, on Tuesday (June 7) the following headline appeared on CNBC: Target expects squeezed profits from aggressive plan to get rid of unwanted inventory. The sub-headline was: Target said it will take a short-term hit to profits as it cancels orders and marks down unwanted merchandise. Walmart, which saw inventories grow 33% Y/Y, and Kohl’s (40%) are in the same boat. Many others, too. We expect discretionary merchandise to be “on sale,” if not now, then soon.

The Consumer Strength Myth

Part of the narrative has been that consumer balance sheets are strong, and they have significant savings, so consumption will remain elevated. Again, that is ancient history. The savings rate, which was over 30% when Washington D.C. was giving money away, has now fallen to a 14-year low of 4.4% (see chart). Not much there to spur consumption!

In addition, over the last four months, consumers, in an attempt to maintain their living standards in the face of rising food and fuel prices, have gone on a borrowing binge. There has been a record run-up in credit card debt to the tune of $38 billion in April alone and $120 billion over the last four months (11.2% growth and a 22% annual growth rate). As one would expect, delinquencies are also on the rise: 60-day delinquencies for sub-prime credit card holders are up six months in a row; 11% of credit card holders with credit scores below 620 are delinquent, and 8.5% of car loans/leases are also delinquent.

Cracks in the Housing Market

The New Home sector is a major contributor to GDP. We have seen new housing inventory go from a couple of months supply to nine months. Mortgage applications to purchase have been falling on a week-to week basis over the last several months and are -21% lower than a year ago. This is no doubt a function of rising mortgage rates which have gone from the 3% area to more than 5.5%. Which means that the monthly mortgage cost for a median priced home a year ago is now 50% higher. April’s Existing home sales are down nearly -6% Y/Y, pending sales -9% and new home sales -12%.

Worse, the rise in interest rates have caused a -75% Y/Y falloff in mortgage refinances. Often, consumers borrow against the appreciated value of their homes for big ticket items, like home improvements, to finance an expensive vacation, or even to purchase a car. The fact that such applications have fallen so far, so fast implies a dramatic slowdown in such purchases. In fact, the data say that overall refi-mortgage applications are at a 22-year low.

Big-Ticket Items Tank

It’s not just housing. For the last several months, The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Survey has indicated that consumers were not in any mood to purchase homes, cars, or other big-ticket items as seen from the chart showing consumer intentions to buy cars.

Lo and behold, we now see new car sales (passenger cars and light trucks) were down -30% Y/Y in May.

The U of M’s sentiment gauges continue to point lower. The chart below shows that the overall Consumer Sentiment Index for June has fallen to the lowest level in its history.

Because U of M’s sentiment gauges continue to point lower, we can expect that major purchase statistics will continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

The Tight Labor Market

The champions of the “mild recession” narrative say the economy is still vibrant and point to the labor market. They say the Unemployment Rate is still 3.6% and “Now Hiring” signs are everywhere you look. The answer is that the tight labor market preceded the pandemic. Part of this issue is demographic in nature, because as baby boomers are retiring, replacements aren’t 100% there. But much of the problem has been caused by the narrative itself. That is, the view that there aren’t enough workers has caused both over-hiring and labor hoarding. We see this in the productivity statistics. In Q1, productivity eroded at an annual rate of -7.5%. That number is huge, and we haven’t seen such a number since 1947! Over the last three quarters, productivity has fallen at a -1.9% annual rate. That’s a harbinger for recession as poor business results will cause right-sizing.

While the Initial Jobless Claims are still fairly low, they have recently started to rise. We also note that layoff announcements (from Challenge) are on the rise.

Inflation and the “Transient” Issue

The May CPI number was quite ugly on Friday (June 10) with the Y/Y inflation rate rising to 8.6%. The main culprits, once again, were food which was up +1.2% M/M (+10.1% Y/Y) and energy (+3.9% M/M; +34.6% Y/Y). These are taxes on the real spending power of households, especially lower/middle income ones. As a result of the energy spike, airline fares rose double digits and are now 38% higher than a year ago, and the energy costs also spilled over into delivery services and freight costs. The “core” inflation rate (ex-food and energy) rose an ugly 0.6% and only fell on a Y/Y basis (6.0% from 6.2%) because of “base effects,” i.e., the denominator (moving from April 2021 to May 2021) spiked higher.

Nonetheless, we still maintain the view that this bout of inflation is “transient.” We know that this is a discredited word. The problem with that word is that it was never defined as to time frame, so imputed to it was a short period, like 2 or 3 months. The term actually means “not permanent.” And that remains our view. As to time frame, likely another 12-18 months barring any non-economic events (like Russian aggression). At this stage, we see significant downward pressure on inflation for the following reasons:

· Demographics – the demographics in the U.S. and in major developed markets (older populations) are such that disinflation/deflation results. We saw this in the U.S. economy between the Great Recession and the pandemic;

· Fiscal policy has turned from giving away money to one of a significantly shrinking deficit;

· The money supply is now contracting, and the velocity of money is still near record lows;

· The Fed has not only caused interest rates to rise, but they have now begun Quantitative Tightening (QT); liquidity is drying up and that will impact financial markets (likely already has);

· Vendor delivery delays are easing – the ISM measure is at a 14-month low;

· The supply chain logistics appear to have eased – the near-record unloadings at the CA ports support this view;

· Multi-family units will come to market at a record level in the 2nd half of 2022; that will stop the rise in rents;

· The U.S. dollar is strong which reduces the cost of foreign goods;

· Commodity prices appear to have peaked:

  • Lumber: -43% over the last 3 months;
  • Steel rebar: -22% from its peak;
  • Iron Ore: -35% from its peak;
  • Baltic Dry Index: -20% since mid-May;

· Major retailers will be reducing inventories (reduced prices); TGT already announced its major inventory reduction;

· Wage growth has slowed to about half of its 2021 rate; it will further moderate as the unemployment rate rises.

Final Thoughts

The indicators are all saying that the recession will come sooner and be deeper than currently expected:

  • The Citigroup Economic Surprise Index is deeply negative;
  • The Atlanta Fed’s GDP forecast for Q2 is now 0.9% (June 8), down from 1.9% on May 27 and 2.5% on May 17;
  • U of M’s overall Consumer Sentiment Index dove to 58.4 (prelim) in May from 65.2 in April – that’s a big move for that index, and, as we discussed earlier, it has proven to be a leading indicator for car and home sales.

For consumers:

· Lower/middle income earners are suffering from a large inflation tax – that is impacting consumption;

· Upper income earners are suffering from a “Bear” Market in equities, and that has a psychological impact on their spending;

· The implications for the economy:

  • Inventory reductions (things “on sale” should help reduce inflation);
  • Cost cutting as profit margins erode;
  • That means layoffs and rising unemployment.

(Joshua Barone contributed to this blog.)


The Spending Breakdown: Here’s What We Bought In February



It’s been a financial doozy out there for consumers lately, to say in the very least. Inflation continues to bubble up to the forefront of many stories, followed by tech sector layoffs and skittishness within the banking sector.

On March 15, the U.S. Census Bureau released its results for retail sales in February. The report is a useful roadmap that provides insight into what consumers are prioritizing and spending on. It also showcases the segments within retail where consumers might have cut back or pared down.

February was a mixed bag for consumers. In response to the results, Chip West, a retail and consumer expert at Vericast, a marketing solutions company, noted that higher interest rates seemed to affect some consumer discretionary purchases.

“Consumers have been under intense pressure from continued high inflation where interest rates are headed,” writes West in an update.

Overall, consumers spent $697.9 billion in February, sightly down from $700 billion in January. Within these numbers, many categories for this round showed slow to no increase, while some declined.

Digging a bit deeper, non-store retailers were among the biggest winners, with consumers spending $112,722 billion, up from $110,956 billion in January. General merchandise stores reported $73,794 billion, up from $73,392 billion. Within that category, department stores edged down to $11,579 billion from $12,056 billion in January.


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Groceries have been a large part of the spending narrative over the past few quarters because of inflation. The increase in spend on food and groceries continued in February with consumers plunking down $81,014 billion in February, up from $80,618 billion in January. During those same time periods, grocery stores were up slightly to $72,540 billion from $72,142 billion.

Consumers paid slightly more for electronics (a total of $7,214 billion) during this time period as well.

We are also still tightening our proverbial belts by cutting back on some purchases, and February was no exception. Furniture and home furnishings, for example, took a hit, reporting $12,048 billion in sales compared to $12,359 billion in January.

In the automotive department, motor vehicles and parts also slowed to $130,647 billion from $133,037 billion. Meanwhile, gasoline stations reported $58,379 billion, down from $58,721 billion in January.

Finally, we bought less clothing totaling $26,691 billion compared to $26,906 billion in January and dined out slightly less at $92,740 billion in February, down from $94,789 billion in January.

The results are not all dismal, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData. Saunders sees retail sales as being in “positive territory with overall spending up by 5.6% over the prior year.”

Importantly, “Consumers continue to dig deep to fund consumption and are showing remarkable resilience despite various unfavorable economic factors,” according to Saunders. Despite digging deep, however, consumers are also “gradually changing behaviors to cope with higher inflation and numerous pressures on their household budgets.”

As we head into spring, one thing remains clear: the consumer may be battered, but the spending isn’t going away. The next report is expected on April 14 and will help us round out and complete the spending picture for the first quarter of 2023.

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A Deeper Look At DeSantis’ Anti-ESG Legislation: What Is ESG?



Florida’s anti-ESG legislation, championed by Governor Ron DeSantis, is positioned to be the model for anti-ESG legislation in the United States. 20 Republican Governors have already signed on to adopt similar policies. The legislation itself is massive and sweeping, touching on multiple areas of law and policy. This is the first in a series of articles that will deep dive into Florida’s proposed legislation and look into its potential impacts in the larger ESG debate. However, before looking at the language of the legislation, we must start at the beginning. What is ESG?

ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance. It has gone by other names over the years including impact investing, social impact investing, and sustainable investing. At its core, it is an investment strategy. A way to use your money to impact change. We often see this in political movements. Conservatives boycotting Disney because of “woke” policies, or going to a business to support their Christian values. Liberals boycotting businesses over Black Lives Matter stances, or supporting environmentally friendly companies. Companies know that, and they include it in their marketing strategy.

In theory, ESG just took that to the next step and applied it to your retirement funds, giving you the option to choose how your money is invested. Fund managers already present their clients with multiple options, allowing the investor to choose their level of risk. ESG adds another option, where the investor can choose a lower return, but feel like their money is doing something good. Investing in a green company may not make you as much money, but you’ll feel like you’re doing your part to help the environment. If that is your choice, you should be allowed to make it. However, ESG took on a life of its own.

If I told you that the United Nations developed a plan to manipulate financial investments to force businesses to enact environmental and social policies that align with their goals, announced by Al Gore, you would probably start pushing me into the conspiracy theory category. Yet, it happened. It didn’t happen in secret. There are no leaked documents or conspirators. It happened in public, through public meetings, with clearly stated goals and outcomes, and they held a press conference to announce it. We just didn’t know what they were talking about.

That push drove ESG, primarily in the European Union. This rapid growth was problematic for those tasked with making financial decisions. The first real issue for ESG was the lack of clarity. Sure, “e” stands for environmental, “s” stands for social, and “g” stands for governance. “C” is for cookie, and while that is good enough for the Cookie Monster, that is not good enough in the world of financial investments. Terms need clear definitions, measurements, and projected outcomes.


When most people discuss ESG, they gravitate towards the environmental piece. It appears to be fairly self-explanatory; a company that is environmentally friendly. However, environmentally friendly is a vague term. It could be a reduction in waste, adding solar panels, low emission vehicles, or any number of factors, all of which are self-reported by the company. As no reporting standards are currently in existence, companies can make their claims based on their own internal calculations, and fund managers can make their choice to invest based on what they choose to prioritize. This has led to what is known as greenwashing, or when a company exaggerates its environmental policies in order to appear more environmentally friendly than they really are.

Do not overlook the social and governance components, as that is where the real conflict arises. In the United Kingdom, social includes investment in affordable housing. In the European Union, it looks at factors like the use of slave labor in the supply chain. In the United States, it includes diversity and inclusion. Those factors, and how they are weighed, vary wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and fund manager to fund manager. ESG is not just about the environment.

There are international efforts to create reporting standards, but they will not be released until later this year and no front-runner has been selected. That alone is problematic, to say the least.

To this point, I’ve presented ESG as if it is your choice, but ESG has taken a turn from elective to mandatory. A select group of fund managers followed the UN’s lead and started including ESG factors in all their funds, under the premise that ESG is good for the long-term growth of a company. This approach has wide ranging impacts. It effects long-term growth calculations for publicly held companies. It impacts credit ratings for government bonds. Banks are calculating the risk of business loans and accounts based on ESG. What was an abstract concept a few years ago, is now directly driving sectors of the business and financial markets.

In response, business leaders and Republican elected officials began pushing pack. The Trump administration introduced a Department of Labor rule limiting ESG that was eventually overturned under the Biden administration. States then started taking action. Texas struck first by adjusting how they invested state pensions. Florida followed soon thereafter by doing the same, then took it a step further introducing their anti-ESG legislation.

The legislation addresses five key areas: investment of state money, investment of pension funds, issuing bonds, banks, and government contracts. Those areas are about states controlling what they can control. Over the next few articles, each of those areas will be looked at in depth. What is happening in Florida could be the future of the anti-ESG movement in the United States.

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Don’t Make A Mess Out Of The Texas Citizens Participation Act



The Texas legislature is considering a proposed amendment to the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), which is the Texas Anti-SLAPP law and roughly the equivalent to the Uniform Public Participation Act (UPEPA) which is in the process of being adopted nationwide. Because the proposed amendment has the potential to create more problems than it solves, and in fact may create a mess of things, some analysis is in order.

The TCPA is found at Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 27.001, et seq. The TCPA basically provides that if one party files an action some sort of action which infringes upon certain constitutional rights of another party, that second party (movant) may file a motion to dismiss the action of the first party (respondent) in certain circumstances.

I will not go into the entire operation of the TCPA, but will instead here focus upon only the part that is relevant to the proposed amendment.

If the movant’s motion to dismiss is unsuccessful, then the movant may appeal under § 27.008 of the TCPA and the corresponding § 51.014(a)(12) that provides for an interlocutory appeal of a trial court’s denial of a motion to dismiss. Very importantly, § 51.014(b) provides that while this appeal is ongoing, all other proceedings at the trial court are stayed pending the appeal.

The stay pending the resolution of the appeal is necessary to avoid potential wasted effort by the trial court and the litigants. Otherwise, if the litigation were to proceed before the trial court while the appeal was ongoing, but the appeal later reversed the denial of the TCPA motion, everything that the trial court and the litigants would have done in the interim would be totally wasted activity.

Of course, the respondent who defeated the motion to dismiss wants to get on with their case, but the truth is that the stay pending appeal is probably not going to be very long anyhow, because § 27.008(b) provides that “[a]n appellate court shall expedite an appeal or other writ, whether interlocutory or not, from a trial court order on a motion to dismiss a legal action under Section 27.003 or from a trial court’s failure to rule on that motion in the time prescribed by Section 27.005.” So, if there is a delay in the litigation, it should be only a short one and thus there is no need for a relief from the stay.


The bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with this stay during appeal as it currently exists in the statutes. It doesn’t need fixing. Nevertheless, in SB896/HB2781 the Texas legislature is considering tinkering with § 51.014 to limit the application of the stay pending appeal to three circumstances:

First, where the motion to dismiss failed because it was untimely under § 27.003(b);

Second, where the motion to dismiss not only failed, but was also deemed to be either frivolous or assert solely for the purposes of delay, per § 27.009(b); or

Third, where the motion to dismiss was denied because an exemption to the authorization of the motion existed (such as commercial speech, wrongful death claims, insurance disputes, evictions, etc. ― Texas has a bunch of such exemptions) under § 27.010(a).

The reason for this tinkering is implicit: If the TCPA motion to dismiss does not seem like a close call, there is no reason to delay the litigation while the movant (who lost the motion to dismiss) prosecutes what is likely a fruitless appeal.

Except that there is.

The hard truth is that trial courts frequently get things wrong. So frequently, in fact, that states such as Texas have full-time appellate courts with numerous districts to review purported errors by the trial courts. Particularly where the state courts are asked to consider matters with constitutional implications ― issues which, unlike the federal courts, they rarely deal with ― the state courts have a tendency to err. Plus, once a trial court has made one misjudgment, the effect is usually to snowball and result in other bad rulings that follow, such as sanctioning a party who was right in the first place.

Thus, long ago it was determined that it did not make any sense for litigation at the trial court level to go on at the same time that there was an appeal pending, for the reason that if the appeal ends in a reversal then whatever the courts and the parties were doing up to that point in the trial court becomes a giant pile of wasted judicial resources and efforts. This is the very reason why § 51.014(b) stays activity at the trial court level for interlocutory appeals. Such is even more important in the Anti-SLAPP context, such as with the TCPA, where one of the primary purposes of such statutes in the first place is to conserve the judicial resources of the courts and the parties — and particularly the party against whom abusive litigation has been brought.

However, the single counterargument against allowing the litigation to go forward during the appeal as in the proposed Texas amendment is this: The appeal is not going to last very long anyway, because of the mandate of § 27.008(b) that the appellate court must resolve a TCPA appeal expeditiously. Because the appeal period will be short, there is really no compelling reason to risk wasting judicial resources and the parties’ resources in the meantime. The proposed amendment to the TCPA is a solution in search of a problem.

It also must be considered that what the Texas amendment really attempts to do is to negate what amounts to a frivolous appeal by a party that has lost its TCPA motion. However, there is already a remedy for that, which is that the Texas Court of Appeals may itself award monetary sanctions for a frivolous appeal. Thus, if a party files a bogus appeal of the denial of their TCPA motion, the Court of Appeals may award appropriate monetary sanctions, not just against the party who brought the appeal but also against the counsel who filed that appeal. This is a significant deterrent to the bringing of such appeals.

But let us consider what might be done in these circumstances if somebody really just wanted to do something for the sake of doing something. It would not be the proposed Texas amendment. Instead, the appropriate solution would be to allow the Court of Appeals the discretion to lift the stay under § 51.014(b) upon the request of a party or upon its own initiative in the described circumstances.

What happens with all appellate courts, including the Texas Court of Appeals, is that the particular panel makes a decision on the outcome of the appeal pretty quickly. The delay in the Court of Appeals issuing its ruling is that it takes time to write the opinion to support the ruling. If the Court of Appeals knows that it is going to rule to deny the appeal, then the Court of Appeals at that time could lift the stay at the trial court level in anticipation of their future formal decision denying the appeal.

The problem of the stay pending appeal is not a trial court issue, and should not be resolved by changing what goes on with the trial court, but instead is an appellate issue that should properly be resolved (if at all) by allowing the Court of Appeals the option of terminating the stay. One thing is certain: The proposed amendment to the TCPA that automatically terminates the stay is not the way to deal with this issue ― if, indeed, an issue actually exists at all.

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