John Lynch Chief Investment Strategist, LPL Financial
BEIGE BOOK SUGGESTS CONTINUED MODERATE ECONOMIC GROWTH
The latest edition of the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) Beige Book, released last week, suggested continued steady economic growth. While signs of a tightening labor market and concerns about tariffs continue to appear, we believe they should be viewed within the context of Main Street’s generally positive view of the overall economy. The Beige Book is a qualitative assessment of the domestic economy and each of the 12 Fed districts individually. The report is prepared eight times per year, ahead of each Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting—the next of which is scheduled for the end of this month. We believe the Beige Book is best interpreted by measuring how key words change over time. Details in the September 2018 Beige Book were collected in the weeks prior to August 31.
At LPL Research, we created our proprietary Beige Book Barometer (BBB) [Figure 1] to evaluate the sentiment behind the Beige Book collage of data. The BBB measures the difference between the number of times the word “strong” or its variants appear in the Beige Book and the number of times the word “weak” or its variants appear. When the BBB is declining, it suggests the economy is deteriorating; when it’s advancing, it suggests the economy is improving.
The barometer’s reading was +71 in September, down from its July reading of +81 (which was the highest since January 2016), but above its 12-month rolling average of +67. The reading indicates continued steady growth for the U.S. economy as the number of strong words remains solid [Figure 2]. There were 86 strong words in the September Beige Book, compared with 93 in the July Beige Book (the most in 15 months). There were 15 weak words in the September Beige Book, compared with 12 in the July Beige Book. Weak words ticked up slightly, but they remain near expansion lows. Strong words also tend to signal a pickup from economic weakness. With fairly steady growth over the last year, the low level of weak words may be a more telling indicator of the overall economic environment.
TRADE TAKES CENTER STAGE
Trade uncertainty is a prominent theme on Main Street, according to the Beige Book. Trade-related words appeared 81 times in the September Beige Book, the highest number of mentions since we began tracking trade mentions at the beginning of 2017. In 2017, trade-related words appeared an average of just over 13 times in each Beige Book. Out of those words, “tariffs” appeared 42 times, while “trade” itself appeared 34 times. Trade concerns have steadily ramped up this year following the imposition of tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods and threatened tariffs on an additional $467 billion, as well as ongoing NAFTA renegotiations. Tariff impacts continued to weigh on manufacturing, primarily through higher material costs. Several districts pointed out increasing input prices, but some firms noted they intend to pass along these costs.
In Philadelphia, the Beige Book observes:
Nearly two-thirds of the firms that offered general comments noted that price hikes and/or supply disruptions had already occurred or were anticipated because of tariffs and the threat of tariffs. For those firms already impacted, contacts often cited double-digit price increases; some typical responses were that tariffs “have put us out of business” on certain products and “are a cloud on every facet of our business planning.”
Trade anxiety has also spread to other facets of Main Street. Multiple districts noted that the uncertainty has prompted some U.S. businesses to scale back or postpone capital investment. Retailers in multiple districts also noted higher input costs, indicating the impact of tariffs is spreading throughout the supply chain. Farmers in several districts highlighted lower commodities prices and bleaker outlooks for the agricultural industry because of trade uncertainty. While we expect the overall impact of trade on growth to be limited, segments of the economy are clearly seeing effects, both from policies in place and the increased uncertainty that makes it more difficult for some businesses to plan.