Markets are muted today as investors digest economic data from the U.S. and the U.K. while listening to a long list of Fed speakers. The U.K. this morning released a cloud of awful retail data that at least has a silver lining – it’s strengthening expectations that both the Bank of England and the European Central Bank will refrain from further rate hikes. Also this morning, U.S. data showed a modest pickup in construction activity, with slightly lower mortgage interest rates luring home buyers from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Fed speakers appear to be marching in unison, preserving optionality for another rate hike and reiterating that it’s too soon to declare victory on inflation.
Builders Rev Up Activity
Real estate activity recovered in October, as builders were motivated by lower interest rates that improved housing affordability. The pace of building permits and housing starts rose 1.1% and 1.9% month-over-month (m/m) to 1.487 million seasonally adjusted annualized units (SAAU) and 1.372 million SAAU. Both permits and starts beat expectations of 1.45 million and 1.35 million and improved from September’s 1.471 million and 1.358 million.
Gains were broad based across single- and multi-family housing although the latter did outperform by a wide margin. Multi-family construction permits increased 2.2% m/m while starts increased 4.9%. Single-family permits rose a more modest 0.5% and starts gained only 0.2%. On the other hand, regional differences were significant. For permits, the Northeast and South gained 15.6% and 3.1% while the Midwest and West declined 10.6% and 1.7%. On the other hand, starts in the Midwest and the West actually led, increasing 28.4% and 12.5% while the Northeast and South declined 14.5% and 6.8%.
Consumption Slumps in the United Kingdom
Retail sales slumped in October, as consumers balked at loftier prices and elevated interest rates. Retail sales fell 0.3% m/m and 2.7% year-over-year (y/y), much worse than projections calling for a 0.3% m/m gain and a 1.5% y/y decline. The fuel category declined 0.2% m/m, while food stores and retail dropped 0.1%. Ecommerce offset some of the damage, however, as it rose 0.1%. U.K. retail sales are reported via volumes as the data is adjusted for inflation.
Corporate Earnings Offer Caution
Recent earnings reports depict continuing challenges for retailers, including uncertainty in geopolitics, inflation and consumers’ spending capacity. In the semiconductor industry, meanwhile, quarterly sales of manufacturing equipment by Applied Materials were flat y/y.
Ross Stores, which operates off-price retailers Ross Dress For Less and dd’s Discounts stores, reported results that benefited from declining freight costs and shoppers increasingly seeking bargains. Ross Stores’ y/y sales increased 7.9% from $4.6 billion to $4.9 billion for the quarter ended October 28. Analysts anticipated $4.85 billion in revenues. During the period, same-store sales increased 5% y/y and beat the analyst consensus expectation for a 3.1% increase. A decline in shipping expenses contributed to the company’s earnings climbing y/y from $342 million to $447 million. Its earnings per share (EPS) of $1.33, climbed from $1.00 y/y and exceeded the analyst expectation of $1.22. Savings from shipping costs were partially offset by higher employee wages and increased sales incentives. Due to inflation, geopolitical uncertainty and macroeconomic volatility, the company maintained its current quarter guidance. It anticipates comparable sales to increase 1% to 2% and total sales to increase 8% to 10%. It also anticipates producing a current-quarter EPS in the range of $1.56 to $1.62. Ross shares bounced approximately 8.5% this morning.
While consumers are increasingly turning to discount retailers to offset higher living costs, BJ’s Wholesale Club’s same-store sales excluding gasoline declined 0.1% and missed the 1.0% increase expected by a consensus of analysts. When including gasoline, it generated a 0.4% y/y increase. BJ’s revenue grew 2.9% y/y from $4.785 billion to $4.925 billion and exceeded the analyst consensus expectation of $4.899 billion. On a positive note, membership fees increased 6.6% y/y to $106.1 million, digital sales climbed 16% and sales of BJ’s branded items climbed in the double digits. However, the company’s adjusted EPS, which excludes nonrecurring items, dropped from $0.99 to $0.98 but exceeded the analyst consensus expectation of $0.95. Going forward, BJ’s expects high levels of uncertainty within the retail industry due to disinflation, geopolitical conflicts, demand trends normalizing following the Covid-19 pandemic and shoppers continuing to be resourceful in cutting costs. Additionally, customers are being stubborn in buying big ticket items. BJ’s lowered its same-store sales guidance for fiscal year 2023 from a 1% increase to a 2% decrease, but it maintained its adjusted EPS guidance range of $3.83 to $3.92. Shares of BJ’s declined approximately 3% this morning.
Applied Materials, which is one of the country’s largest producers of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, said it generated strong earnings, but the news was overshadowed by an anonymous report that the company is being investigated for alleged violations of restrictions on exporting products to China. While the overall semiconductor industry has been soft due to a glut of computer memory components and weak demand for personal computers, Applied Materials and industry analysts anticipate that artificial intelligence will drive a strong increase in demand. For the fiscal fourth quarter ended October 29, Applied Materials revenue of $6.72 billion was nearly flat y/y but exceeded the analyst consensus expectation of $6.54 billion. The company’s adjusted EPS of $2.12 exceeded the analyst estimate of $1.99 and increased y/y from $2.03. Applied Materials expects its fiscal first quarter sales to total approximately $6.47 billion and its adjusted EPS to fall within a range of $1.72 to $2.08. Analysts expected guidance of $6.34 billion in revenue and an EPS of $1.84. Applied Materials share price dropped approximately 8% last night and an additional 7% earlier today.
Cyclicals Leading While Tech Lags
Equity trading is mixed today as cyclicals lead while tech lags. In fixed income, currency and commodity land, bonds are facing slight selling pressure, the dollar is lower and crude oil is sharply higher. For stocks, the small-cap cyclically tilted Russell 2000 is the only major index in the green, climbing 1.3%. The Nasdaq Composite, S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial indices are lower by 0.3%, 0.1% and 0.1%. Sectoral breadth is split, with energy, consumer discretionary, industrials, financials, materials and utilities leading while the other five sectors are lower. Energy is the only sector with more than a 1% gain, climbing 1.8%. Yields are higher on the 2- and 10-year Treasury maturities by 6 and 2 basis points (bps) as the bonds trade at 4.9% and 4.46%. The Dollar Index is lower by 32 basis points to 104.05 as the greenback loses value against the euro, pound sterling, franc, yen, yuan and the Aussie and Canadian dollars. Crude oil is recovering strongly as bulls try to reclaim the $75 dollar level. The gain is attributed to technical and oversold conditions as the commodity is on track for its largest 2-week drop since March. WTI crude is up 3.3% or $2.43 to $75.30 per barrel.
Potential For a Strong Recovery
While construction activity remains subdued relative to historical averages, this month and next month will likely reflect further increases in real estate activity as interest rates have continued to decline. Tight inventory in the existing home market is increasingly driving prospective buyers into the new home segment. Builders have responded but at a modest pace in an effort to avoid oversupplied conditions. As inflation continues cooling and the Fed begins cutting interest rates next year, the real estate market is positioned to benefit significantly. Builders will build, supply will increase, prices will remain steady, affordability will improve and the volume of transactions will recover. Shelter is of the essence for individuals and families alike while builders are positioned to accommodate the American dream in 2024.
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