The Bull Continues

100 days after the Brexit scare, three-quarters of a year after the most recent Fed rate hike, the markets once again confounded the instincts of nervous investors and went up instead of down.  The Fed Chairperson Janet Yellen told the world that the U.S. economy is healthy enough to weather a rise in interest rates, but the Fed governors met in September and declined to serve up the first rate hike since last December 15.  That was reassuring news to the Wall Street traders, and investors generally, helping to provide yet another quarter of positive gains in U.S. stocks.

What’s keeping stock prices high while sentiment appears to be—let’s call it “restrained?”  Nobody knows the answer, but a deeper look at the U.S. economy suggests that the economic picture isn’t nearly as gloomy as it is sometimes reported in the press.  Economic growth for the second quarter has been revised upwards from 1.1% to 1.4%, due to higher corporate spending in general and especially as a result of increasing corporate investments in research and development.  America’s trade deficit shrank in August.  Consumer spending—which makes up more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rose a robust 4.3% for the quarter, perhaps partly due to higher take-home wages this year.

Meanwhile, if someone had told you five years ago that today’s unemployment rate would be 4.9%, you would have thought they were highly optimistic.  But after the economy gained 151,000 more jobs in August, unemployment remained below 5% for the third consecutive month, and the trend is downward.  At the same time, average hourly earnings for American workers have risen 2.4% so far this year. On top of everything else, corporate profits have been on a long-term upswing, even if the rise has been choppy since 2008.

The U.S. returns have been so good for so long that many investors are wondering: why are we bothering with foreign stocks?  A recent Forbes column suggested the answer: historically, since 1970, foreign stocks have outperformed domestic stocks almost exactly 50% of the time, meaning the long trend we’ve become accustomed to could reverse itself at any time.

Nobody would dispute that the economic statistics are weak tea leaves for trying to predict the market’s next move, and it is certainly possible that the U.S. and the global economy are weaker than they appear. At the current pace, we might look back on 2016 as another pretty good year to be invested, which is really all we ask for.

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Scott Carlson