An odd jobs report sets the tone for what’s likely to be another choppy day in the markets – stock futures plunged, briefly, after the Labor Department said nonfarm payrolls grew by just 113,000, but the household survey saw a drop (again) in the unemployment rate to 6.6 percent on a big gain in jobs in that survey. An odd decline of 29,000 in government payrolls offset the overall about-at-trend-but-let’s-not-kid-ourselves-about-this-being-awesome 140,000 or so gains in the private jobs market, so there’s a little bit to like, some to shake one’s head at, and still more to wonder about how many people didn’t get to work because their feet froze to the ground when they tried to get into their cars.
(More seriously on that point – the establishment survey doesn’t get some kind of massive job loss just because of a storm on a particular day of surveying, so it’s not as if a snowstorm destroys job growth, so let’s not overstate the weather issue here. It’s a factor, but don’t look for a revision to +300,000 or something.)
The activity in equity futures, however, seems to point to where we’ve been all along: jobs growth, factory activity and overall economic figures are just enough to put a brake on getting any kind of incipient rally and keeping the buyers less motivated right now, though the shallow correction we’ve seen so far appears to have hit a stopping point for the time being. Futures bottomed out around 1758 on the S&P E-Minis, a few points below the level the market had been sitting at before the downdraft that took futures to about 1730 for a few days. Stocks recovered from that level and now appear content to hang out around 1760 or so or even a bit higher, while the bond market is doing something similar – a quick post-jobs rally that took yields down to about 2.64 percent on the 10-year before the buyers eased off the throttle, lifting yields again to around 2.67 to 2.70 percent. Absent more emerging markets turmoil – and this appears to have been somewhat stemmed in the last few days, though maybe that’s just because we haven’t had bad news from China in the last day or two – these levels might end up prevailing for some time.
The jobs number of course raises the usual back-and-forth about whether the Fed might decide to accelerate or decelerate its schedule for winding down stimulus, but with the Federal Reserve – and especially with a new chair coming in – predictability when it comes to this policy is probably the preferred course of action. There’s enough weather-related shenanigans and uncertainty about global growth offsetting the relatively solid economic figures for the Fed to not want to jolt markets, and the Fedsters have been talking pretty tough on this one, essentially making it clear that this wind-down will become the equivalent of stock buyback programs: They continue, no matter what, unless something drastic happens to alter that expectation.
While we’re on the subject of buybacks, Apple is upping the ante on its own share repurchase schedule, succumbing to some of the pressure from the likes of Carl Icahn and others who have demanded the company boost shareholder returns in the absence of real spending plans. And of course, Apple has a ton of cash on hand, and they’re generating enormous profits even if they’re not the growth engine they had been in the past. It’s a bit early to say that the company should be lumped in with the likes of Exxon or IBM – gigantic businesses mostly notable now for moving money around, using up their free cash flow (and then some, thanks to low borrowing costs) for buying back their own shares.
Some analysts, notably Tobias Levkovich of Citigroup, have done studies that show that serial repurchasers – those who are steadily reducing their outstanding share count (share shrinkers, to come uncomfortably close to a Costanza-ism here) – have been better performers in the stock market over the last decade, with a total return of about 550 percent coming into the year compared with the S&P, which is up about 200 percent since the beginning of 2003. From a shareholder perspective, that works as long as these companies are so entrenched that their products deliver big sales at steady margins; once they fall behind, though, look out.