What I’m Watching This Week – 21 April 2014

The Markets

Despite the holiday-shortened trading week, domestic equities managed to recapture virtually all of the ground lost the week before–and more important, the gains were across the board. Even the tech and biotech sectors that have suffered recently showed signs of stabilization, while the S&P 500 managed to return to positive territory for the year.

Last Week’s Headlines

    • Springtime for retail: Shoppers emerged from hibernation and returned to stores again in March, according to the Commerce Department. Retail sales rose 1.1% from February, and were 3.8% higher than in March 2013. Auto sales were up 3.4% for the month and up 9.5% from March 2013. The figures were hailed as confirmation that frigid winter weather was a major factor in previous months’ sluggish sales.
    • China’s economy grew 7.4% over the last year, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. That represents a slowing from the previous quarter’s annualized 7.7% rate, and is slightly below the targeted 7.5% growth for all of 2014. It also represents the nation’s slowest quarterly growth in 18 months. Chinese officials said weaker winter demand from the United States for exports and a sluggish housing market were major factors in the decline.
    • Consumer prices rose 0.2% in March, helping to cut the inflation rate for the last 12 months slightly to 1.5%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the biggest increases were seen in the costs of food and shelter. Grocery prices overall were up .5% for the month and 1.7% for the year, while restaurant prices are up 2.3% since March 2013. The 2.7% increase in the cost of shelter since last March in part reflects rising home prices. Meanwhile, energy costs declined 0.1% in March, led by a 1.7% drop in gas prices.
    • Housing starts improved in March, rising 2.8%, but were nevertheless almost 6% lower than March 2013. The Commerce Department said building permits–an indicator of future activity–fell 2.4% for the month but were more than 11% higher than the previous March.
  • U.S. industrial production grew 0.7% in March, driven largely by mining and the utilities sector. Also, the Federal Reserve revised February’s 0.7% gain upward to 1.2%; it was the highest monthly growth rate in almost four years. The increases represent an annualized 4.4% growth rate in Q1. Meanwhile, the Fed’s April Empire State manufacturing survey slipped 4 points to 1.3, but the Philly Fed’s survey for the month rose from 9.0 to 16.6, its highest reading since last September and the second consecutive month of gains.
  • The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the federal government’s cost of expanding health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act (primarily from providing insurance premium subsidies) will be $36 billion in 2014–roughly 12% less than the amount predicted in February–and almost 7% ($100 billion) less than the $1,487 billion previously estimated for the next 10 years.
  • The weekly earnings of full-time American workers during the first quarter were 3% higher than a year earlier; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s the fastest annual growth since 2008 and was more than double the 1.4% increase in the Consumer Price Index over the last 12 months. The report said the increase put inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings at $796, their highest level since Q2 2012.

Eye on the Week Ahead

Data on home sales and manufacturing could suggest whether a spring rebound is in store. Many of the major Nasdaq tech companies will release Q1 earnings, which could influence whether last week’s rally shows some ongoing strength.