Andrew Sheets: A Test for U.S. Growth
While the U.S. has surprised investors with its economic resilience, new labor market and retail sales data could challenge this continued strength.
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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Andrew Sheets, Chief Cross-Asset Strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about trends across the global investment landscape and how we put those ideas together. It's Thursday, March 9th at 2 p.m. in London.
One of the biggest surprises this year has been the resilience of the U.S. economy. This story faces a key test over the next week, with a large bearing on how investors may think about where we are in the cycle.
Investors entered this year downbeat on U.S. growth, with widespread expectations of a recession. A payback in high levels of consumption over the pandemic, and the lagged impact of higher interest rates, were both big drivers of this view. And indeed many traditionally leading indicators of economic activity did, and still do, point to elevated economic risk.
Yet the story so far has been different. The U.S. economy is still seeing robust consumption and jobs growth and more economically sensitive stocks have been major outperformers. Last month the U.S. economy added half a million jobs and saw very robust retail sales, data points that were taken by the market as a sign that the economy may not be slowing at all.
That might be the case, but what's interesting is that this story is about to get a key update. Over the next week, we'll get the next release of data on the U.S. labor market and retail sales. And that data comes with a big uncertainty.
The uncertainty is how much of the strength in January's data was flattered by so-called seasonal adjustments. For obvious reasons, a lot of things are sold in December and a lot of people are hired to sell them. In January, activity and jobs usually drop off, and so seasonal adjustments are important to help look through all this noise.
To be more specific, retail sales usually drop 20% between December and January. This time around, they only dropped 16%, and since they dropped less than normal this was reported as a healthy gain. The U.S. usually loses 3 million jobs in January as seasonal workers are let go. This time the U.S. lost two and a half million jobs.
December holidays are real and we should adjust for them. But if consumption patterns have changed since 2020, historical seasonal adjustments could be misleading. This month's data may give us a much cleaner picture of where that activity really is.
If activity is once again strong, it could help further fuel the idea that U.S. growth this year will be better than feared. But if it's weak, investors may start to think that January's strength was something of a statistical quirk, especially in the face of other forward indicators that look much softer. Because of this, we think weak data over the next couple of days could be especially good for bonds. But either way, this data has a major bearing on the market narrative.
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