The Shadow of Brexit

It certainly feels like we’re in a bear market, what with the surprising “Brexit” vote in the UK, the dismal first few days of the year and increased volatility across the board.  So it may come as a surprise that the second quarter of 2016 eked out small positive returns for many of the U.S. market indices, and most of them are showing positive (though hardly exciting) gains over the first half of the year. Meanwhile, interest rates have stayed low, once again confounding prognosticators who have been expecting significant rate rises for more than half a decade now.

On the first day of July, the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices were all higher than they were before the Brexit vote took investors by surprise, which suggests that, yet again, the people who let panic make their decisions lost money while those who kept their heads sailed through.  There will be plenty of other opportunities for panic in a future where terrorism, a continuing mess in the Middle East, a refugee crisis in Europe and premature announcements of the demise of the European Union will deflect attention away from what is actually a decent economic story in the U.S.

The American economy is on track to grow at a 2.0% rate this year, which is hardly dramatic, but it is sustainable and not likely to overheat different sectors and lead to a recession.  Manufacturing activity is expected to grow 2.6% for the year based on the numbers so far, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7%, which is actually below the Federal Reserve target.  Inflation is also low: running around 1.4% this year.  The unemployment statistics are almost certainly misleading in the sense that many people are underemployed, and a sizable number of working-age men and women are no longer participating in the labor force, but for many Americans, there’s work if you want it.  Historically low oil prices and high domestic production have lowered the cost of doing business and the cost of living across the American economic landscape.

Despite all this good news, the market is struggling to keep its head above water this year, and is not threatening the record highs set in May of last year.

You are likely to continue to see dire headlines, if not about Brexit or the Middle East, then about China’s debt situation and the Fed either deciding or not deciding to raise rates in the U.S. economy.  Oil prices are going to bounce around unpredictably.  The remarkable thing to notice is that with all the wild headlines we’ve experienced so far, plus the worst start to the year in U.S. market history, the markets are up slightly here in the U.S., and the economy is still growing.

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Scott Carlson