Howes: Gyrating markets, growing economy tell divergent story

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's message to the markets Wednesday drove major indices lower.

The numbers are encouraging — some of them, anyway.

In its highly anticipated December statement, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee said Wednesday that job gains are strong, the unemployment rate remains low, household spending is growing and economic activity is “rising at a strong rate,” despite business investment moderating "from its rapid pace earlier in the year.”

And the markets? They tanked after trading up most of the day in anticipation of the Fed's statement. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 352 points, down 1.49 percent. The S&P 500 lost 39.2 points, off 1.54 percent. And the tech-heavy Nasdaq lost 147 points, sliding nearly 2.2 percent.

The whipsawing markets are on track to make this the worst December for stock investors since the Great Depression, raising a question obliquely raised by the Fed's assessment: What do investors see for the future that isn't reflected in the central bank's reading of the present and very recent past?

After years of essentially free money, traders are rebelling. Rate hikes are coming too quickly. Second, the Fed's reversal of its quantitative easing policy in the wake of the global financial meltdown is looking more like a second track to tighter money — because it mostly is.

And, third, concerns are mounting that the Fed is reacting too slowly to signs of softening in the global economy, courtesy of President Donald Trump's parallel trade wars with China and the European Union, as well as his costly tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. 

Instead of reassessing the consequences of his policies, the president wields Twitter as his preferred cudgel: "I hope the people over at the Fed will read today's Wall Street Journal Editorial before they make yet another mistake," he tweeted. "Feel the market, don't just go by meaningless numbers."

The Fed's response? To use the numbers to direct its policy-making. The Fed's Open Market Committee said it "judges that risks to the economic outlook are roughly balanced, but will continue to monitor global economic and financial developments and assess their implications for the economic outlook."

The disconnect between the economic and market data is sharp, albeit changing. Interest rates on everything from credit cards and savings accounts to mortgages and business loans are rising. Auto loans and leases will be more expensive. Growth rates are being revised downward, even as wages move up and the jobless rate hovers near 50-year lows.

The net effect: mixed messages. The markets signal a slowdown even as the usual markers of forward economic movement flash green. And on Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office took the occasion of the state’s monthly jobs report to join the parade.

In a statement, Snyder's people reminded whoever’ll listen that Michigan’s unemployment rate “remained unchanged at 3.9 percent,” down from 11.3 percent when he took office in 2011: "Eight years ago, it was difficult to find a job in Michigan," Snyder said. "Today it's difficult to fill the jobs we have." 

Ah, but what kind of jobs? Not the autoworker jobs of the past. More of those are endangered even as the industry is completing a historic run of fat profits on years of record or near-record sales. Not the low-skilled, high-wage work that made Detroit a magnet for folks from around the world.

Detroit’s automakers are signaling an unambiguous end to business as usual that will include jobs cuts, likely plant closures and a more pronounced rotation of their workforces into next-generation technology jobs. The moves are likely to impact who stays, who leaves and who gets wooed to work the jobs of the future.

A buoyant national economy is critical to Detroit getting the time to begin realizing the transformation it needs to deliver. That's why General Motors Co., for one, is moving aggressively to reshape its North American plant network, product portfolio and workforce now — when it can generate fat profits selling hot pickups and SUVs of all sizes.

Still, disruption looms. Job cuts mean fewer dollars get pumped into the local economy; plant idlings mean union payrolls shift, if not shrink; and the prospect of cuts at Ford Motor Co. as early as the first quarter of next year mean a growing regional economy will be bucking more headwinds than it already is.

In that sense, gloom and doom investors may be on to something — whatever the numbers say.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.