Jun 4, 2019

Axios Markets

By Dion Rabouin
Dion Rabouin

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Situational awareness:

  • Congressional Republicans are discussing whether to block President Trump's planned new tariffs on Mexico, and could also block billions of dollars in border wall funding announced in February. (Washington Post)
  • More than $40 billion of transactions were announced Monday, the second biggest day for M&A this year. (Bloomberg)
  • Forever 21 is exploring restructuring options with private equity firm Apollo Global Management as it considers filing for bankruptcy. (CNBC)
  • U.K. retail sales fell by the most since 1995. (Bloomberg)
1 big thing: Bracing for a transportation recession

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Airlines are expecting their worst year since 2014, the auto industry has laid off more people than it has in a decade and manufacturing is starting to contract across the globe.

Why it matters: Transportation can be a doubly important signal about the health of the economy. More planes, ships and trains transporting cargo mean companies are selling products and business is growing. More passengers on planes, trains and ships also means more people feel economically confident to travel.

What's happening: Freight and passenger transportation is slowing across the board.

  • Orders for consumer goods-hauling Class-8 trucks last month fell 52% year over year to the lowest since April 2016 when the industry went through a transportation recession. It was also the 4th consecutive month orders were below the 20,000 mark.
  • Dry van truckload spot rates fell nearly 19% year-over-year in April, and more than twice the historical average month-over-month, the latest ACT Freight Forecast showed.
  • The Cass Freight Index for shipments dropped 3.2% in April, the 5th straight month in negative territory.

Air cargo shipments also are solidly negative. April was the first month in which every region on Earth, without exception, showed lower outgoing and incoming changes in weight, year over year, according to cargo market database WorldACD.

  • Worse, every region saw reduced demand from an unimpressive first quarter.

What they're saying:

  • "We are still facing considerable uncertainties," Søren Skou, CEO of Maersk, the world's largest container shipping company, said in May, noting "the risk from trade tensions."
  • "The business environment for airlines has deteriorated with rising fuel prices and a substantial weakening of world trade," the International Air Transport Association said in a release Sunday announcing a downgrade of its 2019 outlook for the global air transport industry.
  • "The environment is really uncertain," Allison Landry, a transportation analyst with Credit Suisse AG, told WSJ. "The common phrases I hear over and over were, 'We're going to wait and see what happens' and 'I hope we don't talk ourselves into a recession.'"

What to watch: The probability of an economic downturn in 2020 is at least 40% due to a falloff in auto sales, an increase in unsold inventory and weakness in government spending, Noel Perry, principal and economist for Transport Futures, told a transportation industry conference in April.

Bonus: April's awful air cargo readings
Expand chart
Adapted from a WorldACD table; Table: Axios Visuals

"For both incoming and outgoing air cargo, each region returned [year-over-year] volume figures worse than the first quarter of the year, underscoring the clear slow-down in global business," WorldACD, a global air cargo market database, said in its latest release.

Why it matters: The numbers could very well get worse. This and other surveys were conducted before President Trump reignited the trade war by tweeting the U.S. would raise tariffs on China to 25% on May 5.

Yes, but: The U.S. went through a transportation recession in 2016 and the global economy managed to avoid recession. Economists looking on the bright side point to the slowing global growth environment that year as evidence that markets can bounce back.

2. Manufacturing falling fast and hard
Expand chart
Data: ISM, Investing.com; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. has managed to largely avoid the slump that has hit Asian and European manufacturing industries this year, but May's reading of both the IHS Markit and ISM PMI numbers shows luck may be running out quickly.

  • The ISM manufacturing index showed U.S. industry slowed to its weakest pace since October 2016.
  • The IHS Markit manufacturing index hit its lowest since September 2009, holding just above a level indicating the sector is shrinking, which it hasn't done since the financial crisis.

A reading on global PMI released Monday showed manufacturing is falling into contraction for the rest of the world.

  • "Business conditions deteriorated to the greatest extent in over six-and-a-half years, as production volumes stagnated and new orders declined at the fastest pace since October 2012," representatives from IHS Markit and JPMorgan, who jointly produce the survey, said in a statement.

May marked the 9th straight month manufacturing growth has contracted. Business optimism fell to its lowest level since future activity data were first collected in July 2012.

3. Fears of Big Tech scrutiny hit Wall Street
Expand chart
Chart: Axios Visuals. Data: FactSet

The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite closed 1.6% lower on Monday — now 10% from the index's record high — as reports about heightened antitrust scrutiny for Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Alphabet hit those companies' share prices, Axios' Courtenay Brown writes.

Why it matters: Big Tech companies have been the portfolio darlings for investors and hedge funds. Until recently, any threat of regulation in the U.S. was largely ignored by Wall Street, but that may be changing.

  • Shares of Apple closed down 1%, while Amazon fell 4%. Alphabet dropped 6%, and Facebook fell more than 7%.
4. Fed gives first sign it will cut interest rates

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard issued the opening salvo in the Fed's capitulation to the market on Monday, saying an interest rate cut “may be warranted soon.”

What he said: Bullard, a voter this year on the Fed's rate-setting committee, cited the rising risk of global trade tensions and weaker-than-expected inflation as reasons he could favor cutting U.S. overnight interest rates.

  • Lowering rates soon could "help recenter inflation and inflation expectations," he said. It could also "provide some insurance in case of a sharper-than-expected slowdown."
  • The Fed "faces an economy that is expected to grow more slowly going forward, with some risk that the slowdown could be sharper than expected due to ongoing global trade regime uncertainty," Bullard said, according to a transcript of his speech in Chicago.

What he didn't say: Ignoring commentary from Fed Chair Jerome Powell and other FOMC policymakers so far this year who insist the Fed plans to hold rates steady, the bond market and Fed fund futures have been pricing in multiple rate cuts by year-end.

Between the lines: If the Fed does cut rates this year — some analysts predict it will be as early as September — it would add further fuel to the fire of Fed critics who say the stock market is dictating U.S. monetary policy.

Flashback: The Fed had signaled it planned to raise U.S. interest rates 3 times this year as recently as November.

Dion Rabouin