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Most major U.S. and global stock markets ended the week on an upbeat note following this week’s rate hike and mostly-dovish comments from the Federal Reserve.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average tacked on 11 points to close at 20,914.  The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 0.67% to end the week at 5,901.  By market cap, smaller caps rebounded and outperformed large caps.  The S&P 500 large cap index gained 0.24%, while the mid cap S&P 400 and small cap Russell 2000 added 1.18% and 1.92%, respectively. 

In international markets, Canada’s TSX retreated a slight -0.1%.  Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom’s FTSE gained 1.12%.  On Europe’s mainland France’s CAC 40 gained 0.72%, along with Germany’s DAX which rose 1.1%.  Italy’s Milan FTSE was up over 2.1% as concerns over the stability of the nation’s banking system continued to fade.  In Asia, major markets were mixed.  China’s Shanghai Composite gained 0.77%, while Japan’s Nikkei fell ‑0.42%.  Hong Kong’s Hang Seng surged 3.15%.  As grouped by Morgan Stanley Capital International, emerging markets as a group rose a very handsome 3.89%, while developed markets as a group gained a respectable but lesser 1.93%.  Both developed and emerging markets are now in the “Above Average – best for new positions” group shown in the Asset Class Ranking table (Fig. 5).

In commodities, the precious metals group was positive for the first week in three.  Gold rebounded 2.4%, to end the week at $1,230.20 an ounce.  Silver was up a similar 2.9%, closing at $17.41 an ounce.  Oil rebounded slightly from last week’s slump by rising 1.69% to $49.31 a barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude oil.  The industrial metal copper, seen by some as an indicator of world economic health, gained 3.72% last week.

In U.S. economic news, the number of Americans who applied for new unemployment benefits fell by 2,000 to 241,000 last week, essentially matching economists’ expectations for 240,000.  Initial jobless claims have remained below the key 300,000 threshold that analysts use to indicate a healthy job market for 106 consecutive weeks, the second-longest streak since the mid-1960’s.

Construction of new houses in the U.S. climbed 3% to a seasonally-adjusted annualized rate of 1.29 million units last month - its second-highest level since 2007.  The increase beat expectations of 1.26 million units and is an indication of the continuing demand for new housing amid a steadily growing economy.  According to the Commerce Department, single-family starts were up in the West, Northeast, and Midwest, but fell in the South.  In addition, single-family home building jumped 6.5% to a pace of 872,000 units last month, while multi-family housing units such as apartments fell 3.7% to 416,000 units. 

Among home builders, sentiment surged to a 12-year high following a series of proposals put forth by new President Donald Trump.  The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) confidence index surged 6 points to 71 to its highest level since summer of 2005.  A host of the index’s sub-categories also surged higher.  The tracker of current sales conditions, sales over the coming six months, and prospective buyer traffic all showed strong gains.  In its statement, the NAHB noted member approval for President Trump, including an executive order that would roll-back a clean-water rule that the NAHB referred to as “burdensome”.  However, the NAHB also noted that rising rates will lead to increased mortgage costs and act as a headwind for future growth.  NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz said “While builders are clearly confident, we expect some moderation in the index moving forward.”

Optimism among small-business owners slipped last month, but remained near long-term highs as owners remained hopeful that the new president will bring more business-friendly policies.  The National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) small business index fell 0.6 point to 105.3, better than the 0.9 point drop expected by economists.  The stronger economy’s tight labor market continued to hit small businesses particularly hard.  In its release, the NFIB wrote “This is one of the tightest labor markets in the 43-year history of the NFIB survey.”  Nearly one-third of respondents reported having unfilled job openings and 17% reported “finding qualified labor” was their single most important problem—its highest level in eight years.

Most Americans remain optimistic that the U.S. economy will continue to grow, according to the latest University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment index.  However a sharp divide remained based on the party affiliation of the respondent.  The index of consumer sentiment rose 1.3 points to 97.6 for March.  Economists had forecast a reading of 98.  Among Republicans, the March survey showed economic expectations climbing to 122.4, a level that typically signals a “new era of robust economic growth”.  However, among Democrats the survey slumped to 55.3, a number that has usually signaled “that a deep recession or depression is imminent.”  As expected, sentiment among swing voters was roughly in the middle at 88.3.  Looking at the present, the index of current conditions rose 3 points to 114.5, its highest level since 2000.  Most respondents said their own finances were in “very good shape”.

U.S. retailers reported weak sales last month, despite the unseasonably warm weather, according to the Commerce Department.  Sales at retailers nationwide were up a slight 0.1% last month, still an increase but a sharp slowdown from the prior two months’ gains.  The results for last month were dragged down by a 0.2% drop in auto sales.  Auto purchases account for about 20% of total retail spending.  Gasoline stations also recorded a 0.6% decline in sales, but perversely that’s viewed as a positive because it’s beneficial to American households.  Ex-auto and gas, retail sales were up a 0.2% pace.  Leading the gains were home-and garden centers, internet retailers, and health and beauty stores.  Among the laggards were department stores, along with electronic, appliance, clothing, and sporting goods stores.

American consumers paid slightly more for goods and services last month according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The Consumer Price Index rose 0.1% in February, meeting analysts’ expectations.  Consumer prices have risen 2.7% over the past year.  Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, the so-called “core” prices increased 0.2%, up 2.2% over the past year.  Both measures have now exceeded the Federal Reserve’s stated goal of a 2% rate of inflation, with several key categories now exceeding that target range.  Housing costs are now up 3.5% over the past year, while the cost of medical treatment has climbed 3.4%. 

Prices of wholesale goods continued to rise last month, up 0.3% as the cost of services such as financial advice, legal help, and travel increased.  The latest Producer Price Index reading pushed wholesale prices up 2.2% over the last year, its highest rate since the spring of 2012.  Stripping out the volatile food, energy, and retail margin categories yields the more stable core PPI index.  That index, which is of more interest to analysts, also increased 0.3%.  Wholesale costs have been steadily rising since last summer, predominantly due to the rebound in energy prices, while the cost of other commodities and raw materials have continued to climb as well.  The move higher in wholesale prices has been confirmed by other measures of inflation such as the consumer price index and the personal consumption expenditures index.

This week, the Federal Reserve lifted its key short-term interest rate for the second time in three months, but remained steadfast in its forecast calling for just two more rate hikes this year.  Steady U.S. growth, an improving labor market, and greater confidence among consumers and businesses gave the central bank the justification for its quarter point Fed funds rate increase.  In announcing the rate hike, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in a press conference, “The simple message is:  the economy is doing well.”  The Fed also noted that the recent uptick in prices has resulted in inflation moving close to its 2% target, which was another critical component in its decision.  Notes show the vote was 9-1 in favor of a hike, with only the Minneapolis Fed president preferring to leave rates unchanged. 

In Canada, Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci outlined a budget for the oil-rich Alberta region stating a pipeline to the Canadian coast would be the “best way” to sell its energy resources.  Alberta is at the center of Canada’s rich oil and natural gas energy sector.  In releasing its budget plans through 2020, the provincial government said the dual headwinds of low oil prices and devastating wildfires last year meant that the economy is just now starting to recover.  The government estimates that the provincial economy will grow by 2.6% this year.  Mr. Ceci said that while drilling is on the rise and oil prices recover, the provincial economy is not yet “out of the woods”.  While new President Donald Trump supports the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Ceci focused his budget speech on breaking its landlock for the sake of diversity.  "Getting a Canadian pipeline built to a Canadian coast is the best way for our world-class energy producers to sell our resources at world-class prices," he said.

In Germany, Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries said the EU could sue the US at the World Trade Organization if the U.S. imposes its planned border tax.  The comments came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel planned to meet with President Donald Trump this week.  Republicans in Congress are pushing for a “border adjustment” that would impose a 35% tax on cars that Germany exports to the United States.  Economy Minister Zypries said that Germany had two possible responses: either adjusting the global tax system to make it conform with such a border tax, or filing suit against the US at the World Trade Organization.  She also said the US would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it did proceed with high import duties “because they need our machines and plants”.

In Asia, China’s Premier Li Keqiang reassured investors that the world’s second-largest economy is strong and not at risk of a “hard landing”, while stressing the government’s support for globalization and free trade at a time of rising protectionism.  Li also repeated earlier remarks that China does not want a trade war with the United States, and urged talks with the American government to find common ground.  Li said at the annual meeting of China’s parliament "We do not want to see any trade war breaking out between the two countries.  That would not make our trade fairer.”  While the accuracy of the official government data has been questioned repeatedly, most analysts agree that economic activity did pick up last year supported by heavy government infrastructure spending and record bank lending.

The Japanese central bank kept its monetary policy steady in the wake of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s second interest rate hike in three months, underscoring the diverging policies of the world’s major global central banks.  Economists had not expected any change in the Bank of Japan’s policy settings as rising global protectionist sentiment and a continuing U.S. rate hike cycle were expected to weigh on the first signs of recovery in the Japanese economy.  The Bank of Japan maintained its -0.1% short-term interest target and pledged to keep its 10‑year government bond yields at near zero percent via its aggressive asset purchasing program.  It also maintained its pledge to maintain the rate of its annual increase in Japanese government bond holdings which is currently 80 trillion yen ($706 billion).  In its statement, the BOJ said “Japan’s economy continues to recover moderately as a trend.”

(sources: all index return data from Yahoo Finance; Reuters, Barron’s, Wall St Journal,,,,,,, Eurostat, Statistics Canada, Yahoo! Finance,,,, BBC,,,, FactSet; W E Sherman & Co, LLC)