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Wealth & Pension Services Group
William Kring, CFP, AIF - Chief Investment Officer

Q1|2017 Economic Commentary

The Quarter In Brief

The opening quarter of 2017 was a historic one for Wall Street as the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 20,000 for the first time. Equities rallied through January and February, then lost momentum in March; even so, the S&P 500 had gained 5.53% YTD when the quarter ended. The Federal Reserve raised the federal funds rate for only the third time in a decade, in response to strengthening inflation pressure and other signals of economic acceleration. Consumer confidence remained high. Commodities had a decidedly mixed quarter. New home sales improved, while existing home sales tapered off. The U.K. took another step toward its Brexit; the U.S. left the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Wall Street kept its hopes up for tax reform and lighter business and banking industry regulation.1,2

Domestic Economic Health 

As the stock market climbed, so did the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index. By March, it had reached an astonishingly high mark of 125.6. The University of Michigan’s household sentiment index declined from 98.5 to 96.9 across the quarter, but it remained well above its historical average of 86.0.3,4

Factory and service sectors expanded nicely during Q1, according to the Institute for Supply Management. The Arizona-based organization’s manufacturing purchasing manager index was at 56.0 in January, 57.7 in February, and 57.2 in March. Its service sector PMI (the March number was not available at this writing) came in at 56.5 in January and 57.6 in February. All these numbers indicate solid growth.5,6

One other sign of economic growth, of course, is inflation. In Q1, it became more palpable. By February, the Consumer Price Index had risen 2.7% in a year (the annualized advance on the core CPI was 2.2%). Producer prices were up as well. The headline PPI showed a 2.2% yearly advance in February, with core prices gaining 1.5% over 12 months.3

Less positive data shows tepid consumer spending at the beginning of 2017 with personal spending up just 0.2% in the opening month of the year and only 0.1% in February. Bank lending inexplicably slowed during the 1st quarter.

This data in and other encouraged the Federal Reserve to make its first interest rate move of the year. On March 15, it announced a widely expected, quarter-point hike, taking the federal funds rate to a target range of 0.75-1.00%. As Fed chair Janet Yellen told the media after the policy announcement, “The simple message is, the economy is doing well.” Investors who assumed the hike was coming scrutinized the Fed’s dot-plot forecast for any 2017 changes; they did not find any. Two incremental rate increases are still projected before the year ends. 

Global Economic Health

In late March, the United Kingdom formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the beginning of the Brexit, if you will. It now has until April 2019 to negotiate the terms of its departure from the European Union. Will it retain single market access after the Brexit, so that its citizens can keep working and living in other E.U. countries without visas? Or will it make a “hard” Brexit, a divorce dictated by court decisions and/or World Trade Organization rules that would cause its people to lose E.U. citizenship rights? In April, the negotiations begin. The euro area jobless rate stood at 9.5% as of February, a low unseen since May 2009. Eurostat estimated an inflation rate of 1.5% for the euro area for March, an 0.5% decline from February.11,12

It is worth noting here that we think that Europe is finally emerging as a solid alternative to the US, given the low expectations and possible improvement in the overall economy.

Looking Back at the Numbers...




S & P 500









Looking Forward

On March 31, the key U.S. equity indices settled at these levels: Dow, 20,663.22; Nasdaq, 5,911.74; S&P 500, 2,362.72; Russell 2000, 1,385.92. The Russell did not quite gain as much as the big three in Q1 – it was up 2.12% YTD when March concluded.

Some truly remarkable things happened in Q1. The Dow closed at a record high for 12 straight trading days – a feat that last occurred in 1987. The blue chips also went on an 8-session losing streak for the first time since 2011. Above are returns with dividends.

With this great quarter now history, investors wonder what to expect out of Q2. A bullish outlook still predominates on Wall Street; though, questions linger. Is the market overbought, with a correction ahead? Is the market at a top? How much of a lift can stocks get from this next earnings season? Unless yearly earnings growth is dramatic, perhaps only a minor one. The stock market has once again outperformed the economy, but that has not troubled Wall Street to significant degree. This old bull market has already surpassed analyst projections – in March, Fortune reported that the consensus forecast for 2017 had improved to a yearly gain of somewhere between 4-10%. Could the bulls run all through this next quarter and, perhaps, for several more to come? As CFRA chief investment strategist Sam Stovall recently commented, “Bull markets don’t die of old age, they die of fright. And what they are most afraid of is recession.” With no hint of recession on the near-term horizon, the upward stock market trend may continue through spring.26

William Kring, CFP®, AIF®
Chief Investment Officer


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