'Mixed' is a word that pops up often in financial research reports these days. The measures that give us hints about which way the economy and markets are headed everything from the number of people out of work to how difficult it is for companies to fund themselves are pointing in every which direction. As a new Bank of America-Merrill Lynch report puts it: 'The [stock market] indicators are fairly evenly divided between positive and negative readings.'
That's not too helpful. It would be nice to know if it were time to breathe easier, time to buy into the market, time spend a little more money with a little less trepidation. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately the economic and market forecasters have turned brutally honest on us. We're all waiting to see. (See pictures of top 10 scared looks of stock traders.)
The battery of news this past week illustrates the up-and-yet-down nature of the signals we're receiving. Consider that on Wednesday the Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell 0.4% between March and April. Yet at the same time, consumers expressed more confidence about the economy than they have since the fall, according to a much-watched survey released on Friday by Reuters and the University of Michigan.
In the continued-bad-news category went fresh data on initial unemployment claims they rose more than expected, dampening excitement about the mild moderation of the week before and the housing market. On Tuesday the National Association of Realtors reported that the median-priced single-family home sold for 14% less in the first quarter than it did during the same time period a year ago. The next day, housing-tracker RealtyTrac reported a 32% year-over-year jump in foreclosure filings. And yet sales of homes in certain markets southern California, southern Florida, Nevada are spiking. A sign of the bottom?
Then there is the financial system. Problems tied to bad loans persist. The latest victim came forward on Tuesday: small-business credit-card issuer Advanta said it would shut down all of its cardholders' accounts after billowing losses threatened its viability. And yet elsewhere the credit markets seemed downright rosy. The TED spread a gauge of how willing banks are to lend to each other hit its lowest point since the beginning of the credit crisis in the summer of 2007, and companies, including Microsoft and Wal-Mart sold a relatively sizeable $32.6 billion of debt to investors.
How does all that gel into a trend line? Well, it doesn't. The talk of economic 'green shoots' from a couple weeks ago seems to have pulled back. Now a lot of the talk is focused on a more-modest analogy involving first and second derivatives. Without getting too far into the scary Calculus stuff, the point is this: we may still be headed downhill but we're now headed a little bit slower. That seems like a sensible way to interpret what's going on. And perhaps even accurate.