Commentary 3/12/12

The Markets

An important key to support the stock market is starting to fall into place.

You may have guessed that key is JOBS. Last week, the Labor Department reported an increase of 227,000 new jobs in February. Over the past six months, 1.2 million new jobs have been created – the highest six-month total since 2006. More jobs could lead to more spending which could boost corporate sales, earnings, and, possibly, stock prices.

While the recent employment numbers look pretty good, leave it to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to rain on the parade. In testimony to Congress on February 29, he said, “Notwithstanding the better recent data, the job market remains far from normal: The unemployment rate remains elevated, long-term unemployment is still near record levels, and the number of persons working part-time for economic reasons is very high.”

On a different note, last week marked the three-year anniversary of the March 9, 2009 stock market low. Since the low: 

  • The S&P 500 index has risen just over 100 percent
  • Corporate operating earnings per share have risen just under 100 percent
  • Corporate revenue per share has risen a meager 1 percent
Source: Barron’s

So, how can corporate earnings nearly double while corporate revenue barely budges? The answer… cost cutting – and a big chunk of the cost cutting came from whacking jobs. Even though we’ve added over a million jobs in the past six months, we’re still down about six million jobs from the peak, according to Barron’s.

The good news is the recent spurt in job growth may suggest that corporations have about reached the limit of cutting jobs and now have to add staff to support even small gains in revenue growth.

Data as of 3/9/12
Standard & Poor’s 500 (Domestic Stocks)
DJ Global ex US (Foreign Stocks)
10-year Treasury Note (Yield Only)
Gold (per ounce)
DJ-UBS Commodity Index
DJ Equity All REIT TR Index
Notes: S&P 500, DJ Global ex US, Gold, DJ-UBS Commodity Index returns exclude reinvested dividends (gold does not pay a dividend) and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; the DJ Equity All REIT TR Index does include reinvested dividends and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; and the 10-year Treasury Note is simply the yield at the close of the day on each of the historical time periods.
Sources: Yahoo! Finance, Barron’s,, London Bullion Market Association.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly.  N/A means not applicable.


THE AGGREGATE NET WORTH OF U.S. HOUSEHOLDS WAS $58.5 TRILLION at the end of last year, according to data from the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds report. To put that number in context, household net worth peaked at $66.8 trillion in the third quarter of 2007. It hit a five-year low of $50.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2009 – the same quarter as the bear market low, according to Bloomberg.

The aggregate net worth of U.S. households is still $8.3 trillion below the all-time high set back in 2007.

Net worth is the difference between total assets and total liabilities. Investment holdings and real estate typically account for the bulk of households’ assets so any change in the financial or real estate markets can cause big swings in net worth.

Parsing the data a bit further shows these two interesting numbers:

  1. Household debt as a percent of disposable income fell to 113 percent at the end of last year. This ratio peaked at 130 percent in 2007 and has been steadily declining. It’s good to see this number drop because it means households are deleveraging and have more income to support their debt level, according to The Wall Street Journal
  2. Debt payments as a percent of households’ after-tax income (the debt-service ratio), fell to a 17-year low of 11.1 percent. Again, a lower number is better because this means consumers are allocating less of their monthly income to pay off debts. With more money left over, they can spend it on things that could propel the economy.

Some of the decline in these debt ratios may be due to the debts being written off as opposed to consumers actually having the money to pay them off. Either way, household balance sheets seem to be improving.

We don’t want to get too caught up in numbers here because that can distract from the key point which is this – consumers are deleveraging, they’re spending less of their income paying off debts, and that may bode well for the economy. 

Weekly Focus – How to Innovate

Some of the most innovative new ideas are developed by simply connecting an existing idea to something new says author Jonah Lehrer. For example, the Wright Brothers were bicycle manufacturers whose first plane was akin to a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg used his knowledge of wine presses to create the printing press. And, more recently, the founders of Google took the existing idea of ranking the importance of academic articles by the number of citations and applied it to their search engine algorithm. The result – web pages that have lots of other web pages linking to it tend to score high in a Google search.

The next time you need to come up with a creative solution to a problem, try taking an idea from an unrelated field and apply it to your situation. Who knows, it might become the next billion-dollar idea!

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