Will higher oil prices finally cause inflation in the U.S. economy?  Will the Federal Reserve be forced to raise their benchmark rates faster and risk stalling the economy?  These are the questions on the minds of investors and traders of stocks and bonds alike.  Recent indicators released by the government this week had opposite and dramatic effects on the markets.  The Producer Price Index released Tuesday showed that prices held steady for the month of March at the manufacturer’s level.  The S&P 500 index was up .6% and the bond markets rallied substantially as well. 

The last two days of trading have been the worst since August 5th and 6th of last year. They have taken the blue-chip index to its lowest level in five months.  What changed so drastically in the last few days?  The economy was growing, but not so fast as to worry the inflation-guardians at the Federal Reserve; interest rates were holding steady, even falling a bit; and corporate profit margins were still fat enough to absorb some unforeseen shocks, like oil remaining above $50.00 a barrel for an extended period. 

The buzz continues about the potential for increasing oil prices to ruin the economic expansion.  Indeed when oil prices fall, stocks go up and vice versa.  With crude just under $54.00 economists have had to revise their opinions of what price would trigger recession.  According to the Wall Street Journal, last summer, one-third of economists who participated in their survey said a recession would follow if crude-oil stuck between $50 and $59 a barrel, the range traded since late February.  In the latest forecasting survey, none of the economists feel that $50 oil will trigger a recession. About 31% said oil would have to be sustained at $80-$89 a barrel to snuff out growth, while 48% believe crude would have to top $90.  In inflation-adjusted dollars that is the level oil reached back in the 70’s during the oil embargo. 

The market’s bounce in February was not enough to overcome the declines in January and March sending all of the major equity indices down for the quarter.  The Dow Jones Industrials and the S&P 500 each declined 2.1% while the NASDAQ fell almost 8%.  Bond indices didn’t fare much better as the Lehman 1-3 Year, the 7-10 Year, and the 20 Plus Year indices declined by .3%, .9%, and 1.6%, respectively.  Our models performed in line with their respective benchmarks for the quarter. 

Since our last Brief a couple of weeks ago, inflation has taken center stage as the new hand-wringer.  On March 2nd oil blew through its most recent high of $52.88 reached on October 26th.  It now stands at $56.62 per barrel.  But the economy seems relatively unfazed.  That is until recently.  It now appears that businesses are beginning to pass along their commodity and labor prices to consumers.  On Tuesday, Greenspan seemed to confirm what many had been worrying about for months; that inflation is creeping back into the economy.

The economy continues to show signs of strength and expanding breadth.  Consumer spending, which represents two thirds of our economy, has been the steady sustainer since recovery began in late 2001.  Low interest rates and taxes have provided consumers with more spending power.  Not until the second half of 2004 did the corporate sector join the party, but it is coming on strong.  Most recently business investment has grown at the fastest pace since 1997.  It will likely take a leadership position from here as the consumer shows signs of slowing somewhat.

Yesterday, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan appeared before the House Financial Services Committee.  His prepared remarks were identical to those he gave the Senate Finance Committee the day before, but his responses to members’ questions were particularly candid and enlightening.  Here are some of the highlights of his remarks on topics that most directly affect long-term investors.

President Bush was in town yesterday conducting a town-hall-styled meeting to further explain his plans for a Social Security overhaul.  His aim is to provide workers with better growth than the current system’s performance, thereby generating more income at retirement.  A further advantage is the potential to pass any remainder along to heirs.  His plan obviously faces huge hurdles as many in Congress don’t believe there is a significant problem and others feel it can be fixed with less dramatic changes.  It is the President’s hope that he can remove much of the political fire from the discussion to have an honest and open discussion of options to improve this mammoth government program.

There’s a stock market axiom that says, as January goes, so goes the year.  According to Bloomberg, since 1950, the S&P 500 has moved in the same direction during the year as it did in the first week 73% of the time.  The S&P 500's drop so far this year marks its worst start since 1990, when it fell 4% in the period through Jan. 20th.  The index lost 6.6% that year.

The U.S. economy forges on, adding jobs and improving standards of living.  It was reported today that the unemployment rate fell from 5.4% in December to 5.2% in January, a three-year low.  According to Bloomberg News, the latest revisions show that the level of now exceeds those of February 2001, a month before the world’s largest economy fell into an eight month recession.