With the S&P 500 hovering at similar levels as those seen 16 months ago, the current bull run has been lacking conviction.
“The market seems balanced between good and worrisome indicators, implying that the various pushes and pulls lead us to consider a stubborn burro, unwilling to move meaningfully in either direction,” Citi analyst Tobias Levkovich wrote in a note Monday. “We find equity indices to be stuck between optimists and pessimists.”
Recent weakness in economic data underpins the bear argument for markets – and two key pieces of survey data in particular have been flashing red. Both come from the NFIB’s Small Business Economic Trends data.
“The two scariest charts for us to consider” are those highlighting the inverse correlation between the percentage of small businesses planning to increase employment versus the civilian unemployment rate, and the “drop-off in small business surveys regarding it being a good time to expand businesses,” Levkovich said.
The former suggests the likelihood of a higher unemployment rate over the next 9 to 12 months, while the latter underscores a reduction in the number of small businesses planning to make expansions in the near-term.
A major deterioration in economic data could spur the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, and some experts have attributed rising asset prices with this method of easy monetary policy.
“For those who think that this would mean lower interest rates, which then would be S&P 500 supportive, we are unsure,” Levkovich said. “Too many clients have this nagging concern about the next recession and the current cycle being long in the tooth. Hence, any signs of sustained economic weakness may not be readily accepted as positive progress.”
In recent months, the NFIB’s small business hiring plans index has trended lower since peaking at an at least two-decade high of 26% in August. And although the current unemployment rate holds at a near 50-year low, a decline in small business hiring plans had historically preceded a rise in the unemployment rate.
Likewise, the percentage of firms reporting that now is a good time to expand has fallen from a high of 34% in August 2018. Most recently in April, 25% of firms reported that now would be a good time to grow their businesses.
“Small business employment plans suggest higher joblessness rates in the next several quarters which could drag down investor expectations,” Levkovich explained. “Moreover, survey work on future capex is discomforting and political rhetoric could step up as the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign approaches with fears likely to creep in if a progressive agenda gains traction with negative consequences for corporate profits or stock buybacks.”
Other economic data pointing to future business activity and investment has been similarly tepid. In April, the Institute for Supply Management’s new orders index fell to a four-month low of 51.7. Last week, the Federal Reserve reported an unexpected decline in industrial output, or a measure of total production at factories, utilities and mines.
Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck
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