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The unemployment situation in the US appears to be improving marginally with the latest government release of data. Employers added 192,000 workers in February and the unemployment rate unexpectedly declined to 8.9%, the lowest level since April 2009. During his Congressional testimony this week Fed Chair Ben Bernanke said there were “grounds for optimism” about the labor market in the coming months. 

Mounting problems in Libya sent oil prices over $100, natural gas trading to record highs, and equity prices reeling. The MSCI US Broad Market Index, which represents 99.5% or more of the total market capitalization of all US common stocks was down 3.9% intra-day, but closed down 2.9% for the week as of yesterday. Realization that there is enough oil supply, a number of good earnings reports and today’s news that last year’s economy (despite a downward revision) still grew the best in 5 years has stocks up .6% this morning. 

It was a mixed week for economic data, but a pretty good one for markets. The S&P looks to finish up close to 1% and the 7-10 year Treasury index is up .25% for the week so far.  Manufacturing news and corporate earnings continue strong, but the consumer may be taking a break. And still bouncing along the bottom, jobs and housing showed few signs of recovery. 

It was a light week for economic data, but the bulk of it was very encouraging. Yesterday, the Treasury announced that tax receipts are rising faster than government spending. It is a clear sign that the economy is gaining strength. The Treasury’s budget showed that tax receipts are up 9.4% while government outlays rose only 4.8%. Four months into the fiscal year, the deficit is at $418.8 billion, down from $430.7 billion a year ago. Any news that the economy is growing faster than the government is good news.

The flurry of economic data released this week was on balance surprisingly strong, with the notable and regrettable exceptions of jobs and housing. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke summed up the economic outlook yesterday. “Until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established.” Yet almost every other metric is strong and getting stronger. Quarterly corporate profits are sharply ahead of a year ago, manufacturing is growing stronger, productivity continues to rise, and consumer spending as evidenced by retail sales is gaining strength.

Common sense as defined in the Encarta Dictionary is “sound practical judgment derived from experience rather than study.” In his 1776 treatise Common Sense, Thomas Paine used plain language to speak to the common man and woman in America challenging the authority of the royal monarchy over them. For the next few minutes, to the extent possible, try to suspend influences that pull you away from common sense thinking; such as politics, media, and persuasive speakers. 

Since stocks turned sharply up last September, they have been on a steady rise, with one notable 4% exception during the month of November. Economic news, both at home and abroad, has steadily improved, but not enough to explain the strength and duration of the rally. Likely much of the buying strength is coming as bondholders cash in profits and head for equities. About the same time stocks began rising, bonds began a steep descent on hyped up inflation worries with the 7-10 year Treasury index losing roughly 6%. More recently, domestic stocks have also benefitted from rising international, particularly emerging market inflation. As central bankers in the fast growing economies of China, Russia, and Brazil raise rates to control speculation, stocks in those countries look less favorable than in the US where rates are being held near zero by the Fed. 

The economy is coming back according to stocks, bonds, gold, economic reports, and Mr. Bernanke. The S&P 500 gained 13% in 2010 and 1.4% so far this year. Companies are poised to report strong earnings for the fourth quarter with profits for S&P 500 companies expected to be up about 20%. Unfortunately, unemployment is not yet following suit, despite the unexpected drop in the headline number.

In conversations with clients, friends, and relatives this past week there seemed to be an almost universal ‘good riddance to 2010.’ But there also seemed to be hope that the now one will bring improvement. We join the hope that faith, optimism, and resilience will prevail.

Inflation continues to be subdued at the consumer level, but one wonders for how long as prices continue to rise for producers of goods and services. Other economic indicators released during the week were mostly positive, some strongly so. The US equity markets are largely unchanged on the week while Treasures gave up .56%. However, there were two strong buying days for Treasuries indicating the two-month slide may be reaching a climax.