Navigating the coming data distortion

The pandemic has—by necessity—led to a distinct change in the way that traditional macroeconomic indicators are used: Data swings have been dramatic, the backward-looking nature of economic prints doesn’t reflect a rapidly changing environment, and the magnitude of data moves each month has made precision a fool’s errand. 

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As we move past the first anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak (and the associated recession and deflationary pressures), data watchers will no doubt need to incorporate stimulus checks, the unprecedented speed of economic normalization that we've witnessed, pockets of virus surges, and, of course, historic base effects into their forecasts. To help navigate these challenges, here are four broad rules to consider while assessing the increasingly complicated data in the coming months:

1  Limit your reliance on conventional growth metrics

2  Throw precision out the window—timeframes will matter more

3  Get granular on data releases; avoid reading into the headline alone

4  Remember that factors that supported the rebound in 2020 will also unwind, reducing support 

1 Limit your reliance on conventional growth metrics

We’re probably several quarters away from being able to return to the pre-coronavirus approach to analyzing economic data with basis point-level precision. The sheer magnitude of the pandemic’s impact on the economy has effectively decimated any traditional concept of what an acceptable margin for error around estimates would look like: Recent economic prints such as March’s retail sales and employment data exceeded consensus expectations by a huge margin but drew only minimal market reaction. In the next couple of months, we believe traditional year-over-year (YoY) growth metrics will be rendered meaningless.

It isn’t just base effects complicating the data, other forms of distortion are also hampering visibility, including the complicating effects of volatile weather patterns, stimulus checks, delayed refunds, and regional differences in vaccine distributions and reopenings. In short, headline data isn’t likely to produce a clean signal on growth and shouldn’t be interpreted that way.

2 Throw precision out the window—timeframes will matter more

If precise estimates don’t matter as much in the months ahead, what does? The simple answer is timeframes and the necessity for data to confirm that the great reopening is indeed sizable and has gained momentum. This is especially true for employment and inflation.

  • Employment—We must see meaningful job gains over the summer or risk market disappointment for two reasons. First, given the composition of job losses during the pandemic, meaningful gains that coincide with the reopening have to corroborate improved activity in key discretionary services sectors and confirm that the reopening is healing the labor market quite quickly. Second,  there are important ramifications for Q4: While policymakers could opt to extend unemployment benefits, our belief is that getting sufficient support for such a measure could prove to be more difficult than before, especially with the current push toward infrastructure spending already poised to add to expenditures. Consequently, the more meaningful the jobs recovery in Q4, the lower the likelihood that permanent employment scarring will transpire. Key metrics to watch over the coming weeks include initial and continuing claims, as well as gains in the leisure and hospitality space. 

"In our view, we’ll need to dig deeper into the data set and, even then, prepare to wave goodbye to the idea of precision forecasting until normality returns."

  • Inflation—We don’t think there’s much risk of market volatility related to upside surprises in the coming months. This development has been well telegraphed by policymakers; however, problems may arise if inflationary pressures persist into the late summer, even at levels modestly above expectations. This will likely spark a repricing of sticky inflation risks and markets could become increasingly tempted to test the U.S. Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) stated resolve to tolerate an overshoot of price pressures.

Knowing which data points will peak and unwind—and when—is key: a rough guide 

TL-41287-JHIM-Timeline-for-normalization_chart1

Source: Manulife Investment Management, as of 4/9/21.

3 Get granular—the devil is in the details

As the economy reopens and new data sets arrive, make it a point to look beyond the headline figures—data components will, in some cases, matter more than the headline indicator.

For instance, we believe jobs gains in the leisure and hospitality spaces, a component of the monthly nonfarm payrolls, will be more critical than the headline number—in the current environment, it serves as a gauge of sector-level demand as economic activity picks up. Also, a pickup in labor force participation rates during the great reopening would signal that labor supply is coming back online, thereby limiting wage growth—a key input into the inflation outlook. 

Hiring activity in leisure and hospitality is picking up

TL-41287-JHIM-Unsurprisingly-jobs-in-hospitality-have-followed-activity-chart2

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Macrobond, as of 4/15/21.

Similarly, in U.S. housing, one area of focus would be months’ supply for existing home sales, or the number of months it would take for existing homes that are already on the market to sell under the current sales environment. Part of the recent surge in home prices can be attributed to plummeting supply, which is intuitive since most people are reluctant to move during a pandemic. As the inventory of homes available for sale increases, so too should overall supply, which should act as a pressure-release valve for home prices. By paying attention to months’ supply, we’re likely to have a better read of the overall picture for future prices and be well positioned to contextualize what we expect to be a temporary pause in rising house prices. 

U.S. housing—months' supply at unsustainable lows

TL-41287-JHIM-US-months-supply-is-at-unsustainable-lows_chart3

Source: National Association of Realtors, Macrobond, Manulife Investment Management, as of 4/15/21.

4 Recognize that both positive and negative distortions will unwind over time

A lot of focus on the U.S. economic outlook has been dedicated to what the reopening/normalization might look like, and here the glass is generally seen as being half full—in other words, through the lens of a normalization in services and abating inflationary concern. There is, however, a flip side to this: Areas and sectors that had been supercharged by the pandemic will eventually normalize, at least on a relative basis, and this time, to the downside. Here’s a noncomprehensive list of items that supported the recovery so far that are likely to become less supportive over time.

  • Housing activity has, counterintuitively, significantly contributed to growth in 2020. During the COVID-19 recession, falling yields, supply shortages, and a trend toward deurbanization all contributed to a surge in real estate activity, with new construction and renovations being beneficiaries. As a result, residential construction’s contribution to growth hit highs not seen in four decades.¹ Consequently, we expect to see a marked (albeit temporary) deceleration in the space as higher rates, improved mobility, and increased supply come back online. This implies that housing activity is likely to slow, and while we remain long-term believers in real assets and U.S. housing, it isn’t realistic to expect to see the space grow at the pace it did in 2020. Similarly, sales of goods are likely to take a breather as consumers spend more on services. As mentioned earlier, while retail sales are likely to chalk up huge gains in the next month or two, we expect them to surpass prepandemic spending by June and that a sharp YoY drop-off could occur over the summer. 

Residential construction's contribution to U.S. GDP growth (%)

TL-41287-JHIM-Residential-constructions-contribution-to-GDP-growth_chart4

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Macrobond, Manulife Investment Management, as of 4/15/21.

  • The pandemic also distorted wage growth, a key input into the inflation outlook. The increase in average hourly earnings in the past year can be traced to the fact that a substantial number of job losses that occurred during the period had been primarily concentrated in lower-paid positions in the services sector. As a result, the statistical gain that we saw in recent months² merely reflected the change in the composition of the data pool, which now comprises more higher-salaried workers as a share of the overall workforce than before the pandemic. As more lower-paid positions come back online, we’re likely to see marked declines in hourly earnings. Crucially, just as the upside in wages had to be discounted, so too will the unwind (although we’d note that lack of wage growth is supportive of our view that we’re not going to see runaway inflation). 

U.S. average hourly earnings should unwind

TL-41287-JHIM-US-average-hourly-earnings-may-unwind_chart5

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Macrobond, Manulife Investment Management, as of 4/15/21.

  • More broadly, the policy support that aided the recovery so far is also likely to unwind; consequently, measures of policy support such as YoY liquidity injections will also deteriorate. This will be true for the Fed, which has already unwound many of its liquidity and emergency lending facilities, including the 13(3) emergency lending facilities. This also applies to fiscal policy and the fiscal impulse, which has likely already peaked, and while government spending remains a major pillar of growth, it’ll become less so in the coming year.

Conclusion

We’re entering an interesting period in which expected data distortion requires economists and data watchers to temporarily set aside analytical habits that they’ve traditionally relied on. Base effects and other one-off factors are likely to make the goal of getting a good read of the economy even tougher. In our view, we’ll need to dig deeper into the data set and, even then, prepare to wave goodbye to the idea of precision forecasting until normality returns. 

 

1 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, April 15, 2021. 2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 15, 2021.