Markets Overlooking A Clear & Present Danger?

There is in interesting dichotomy currently occurring within the economy. While consumer confidence, as reported by the Census Bureau, soared to some of the highest levels seen since the turn of the century, the hard economic data continues to remain quite weak. As noted by Morgan Stanley just recently:

“Compare the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s current 1Q GDP tracking vs ours – FRBNY is currently tracking 1Q GDP at 3.0% versus us around 1%. The difference is larger than usual and is being driven by the fact that the New York Fed incorporates soft data into its tracking (attempting to tie it econometrically to GDP, a very hard thing to do especially in real-time). Our method translates the incoming hard data into its GDP equivalent. Note that the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracking also focuses on hard data and is currently tracking 1% for 1Q GDP.”

The stunning divergence can be seen in the chart attached to that same article which shows the difference between the “hard” and “soft” data specifically.

What is currently expected by those with a more “bullish bias” is the hard data will soon play catch up with the soft data. Importantly, as I discussed in “Fade To Black”, this is the basis of the markets continued optimism that tax reforms, repatriations and infrastructure spending create the “reflationary” dynamics necessary to spur economic growth of 3-4%.

However, there may be a problem.

Economic cycles do not last indefinitely. While fiscal and monetary policies can extend cycles by “pulling forward” future consumption, such actions create an eventual “void” that cannot be filled. In fact, there is mounting evidence the “event horizon” may have been reached as seen through the lens of auto sales.

Following the financial crisis the average age of vehicles on the road had gotten fairly extended so a replacement cycle became more likely. This replacement cycle was accelerated when the Obama Administration launched the “cash for clunkers” program which reduced the number of “used” vehicles for sale pushing individuals into new cars. Combine replacement needs with low interest rates, easy financing, and extended terms and you get a sales cycle as shown below.

(Note: When auto sales are reported each month they are annualized. The bar chart shows the over/underestimation of auto sales each month as compared to what actually occurred on an annual basis.)

The issue is, of course, there are only a finite number of people to sell new cars too.

What the chart above shows is the number of cars sold currently now exceeds both the total increase in population and replacement needs of the existing population. In other words, the pool of available buyers is rapidly being depleted.

But more importantly, while the media touts “record auto sales,” it is a far different story when compared to the increase in the population. With total sales only slightly eclipsing the previous record, given the increase in the population this is not the victory the media wishes to make it sound. In fact, the current level of auto sales on a per capita basis is only back to where near the bottom of recessions with the exception of the “financial crisis.”

Furthermore, the annual rate of auto sales has slowed dramatically and is approaching levels normally associated with more severe economic weakness.