in like a lion, out like a lamb?

Students of behavioral finance must have had a field day this past week. In the wake of a month of dismal economic reports, Wall Street got its risk on with a few better than expected reports on manufacturing sentiment, home sales, and employment. Hopium, it appears, is a powerful drug.

Economists spent August cautiously lowering their outlook for the second half of the year as Obama’s “recovery summer” failed to bear fruit, the Federal Reserve failed at both of its twin mandates (stable prices and full employment), and bullish analysts failed to convince investors that the market was ready to climb to fresh highs. As a result, stocks ended the worst August in nine years with rising calls for stimulus and fears of the dreaded double-dip.

Then came September. In like a lion, surging nearly 3% on the first trading day of the month on the heels of a better-than-expected survey by the Institute for Supply Management of the manufacturing industry. Representing (statistically speaking) nearly 30% of the US economy, the number was expected to fall after a series of similar Fed surveys from around the country indicated that American heavy industry — that engine of growth over the last two quarters — was finally loosing steam. Instead, it leapfrogged every estimate on The Street to post its first advance since May. Granted the rise was modest, but the surprise factor flipped the all-important risk switch and a reinvigorated camp of bulls poured back into the market, convinced that their creeping suspicions about a slip back into recession were all just a bad dream.

Outside of a few trading irregularities, the data itself forced the bears to take pause and reflect on the substance of the report. The economics team at Goldman Sachs may have summarized it best:

“Without question, the report was better than expected…[but] the details of the report actually reinforce the case for further slowing in this sector. As shown in Exhibit 2, the gap between the indexes for new orders and inventories, an important lead indicator of movements in the composite index and in industrial production, almost disappeared in the August report.  As recently as May, this gap was a robust 20.1 index points.  The clear—if uneven—downward trend in this indicator actually strengthens the case for a decline in the composite index in coming months.  The bottom line: US manufacturing output may still be expanding, but the risk that these goods are winding up on the shelf has increased.”

More telling, however, was the dissection by semi-permabear David Rosenberg that helps to put the August print into context:

In a nutshell, ISM did smash consensus expectations in August but the composition left much to be desired. The coincident indicators firmed but the categories that actually lead manufacturing activity softened across the board.

As we said at the outset, the ISM index was at complete odds with the regional surveys. Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, Richmond and Kansas City were all down. Dallas and Cincinnati were up. In the past, when we had a 5-to-2 ratio to the downside, the share of the time ISM managed to eke out an advance was 4%.

It would be wise to lean against the market’s initial dramatic reaction to this data. The ISM orders/inventories ratio is a decent leading indicator and it sank to 1.033x from 1.065 in July. 1.278x in Julne and 1.441x in May. The hidden nugget in today’s report is that this ratio has decline to levels not seen since February 2009. And the last time it fell this fast to this type of level was in the September to December 2007 period (1.03x from 1.30x) when once again, there was tremendous confusion and intense debate over whether it was a recession/soft patch in the economy and the bear market/corrective phase in equities.

Suffice it to say that in the past 30 years, with eleven observations, ISM dropped to 47x in the three months after such a decline in the orders/inventory ratio to such a low level as is the case today. That is the average, the median, and the mode. The highest ISM reading three months hence was 51.9, so if past is prescient, today’s data was likely a huge headfake.

The ISM report also overshadowed another important data release on construction, but we’ll get to that later. The next feather in the bulls’ cap was a pair of data points on residential real estate — the sick dog of nearly every major developed economy in the G8. The first revealed a rise in July pending home sales (5.6%) after a precipitous drop in May (30%) and a further drop in June (2.6%) as an $8,000 tax credit expired. Analysts collectively expected a drop of 1%. Needless to say the markets were pleasantly surprised.

A closer look at the data reveals two key narratives not captured by the popular media or trading desks. First, it’s important to contextualize the “rise” in pending sales by looking at a longer time series that tells the same story (this particular series only goes back to 2005). The graph below speaks for itself.

Second, the reported data may suffer from a disease common to many of the economic statistics released every day: Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD). Given the inherent seasonality of the home buying cycle (higher during the summer when kids aren’t in school, lower in winter when the weather is less than ideal for moving) economists at the National Association of Realtors make adjustments for these factors to make monthly comparisons easier. However, that can sometimes mask changes in the raw data, as was the case with the August NAR release. As Rosenberg suggests:

While the increase in pending home sales is encouraging, we did dig through the data and found that the not seasonally adjusted numbers (the raw numbers) fell by 7%, with declines across the country. This makes sense as July is usually a slower month for homebuying activities.

We wonder if there is a chance that the seasonal adjustment factors could be overstating the monthly increase given that we have seen such huge volatility in the housing numbers in the recent year making the seasonal adjustment process more difficult. Recall that Standard and Poor’s issued a note about the Case-Shiller home price index saying that “the turmoil in the housing market in the last few years has generated unusual movements that are easily mistaken for shifts in the normal seasonal patterns, resulting in larger seasonal adjustments and misleading results.

Another data point that drew a lot of bullish attention was Tuesday’s housing release on prices. After a few dismal years, any news that isn’t a decrease is more than welcome by just about everyone, rich and poor, domestic and international. Tuesday’s Case-Shiller print was no exception, as home prices “jumped“…by a mind-numbing 1%…two months ago in June….on a rolling three-month basis (i.e. April through June)…..still reflecting the last dying gasp of the home buyers’ tax credit. Again, a little context:

And how the markets rallied.

Friday’s bulls, reinvigorated after a powerful (and low volume) start to the month, launched their attack on a new front: employment. Long a forgotten weapon in the bulls’ arsenal, private payrolls climbed by a larger-than-expected 67,000 in August, beating expectations for a 45,000 gain. At that rate, it would only take a little under 9 years to rehire the 7,000,000 people who lost their jobs during the recession but have yet to find new work (assuming no increase in population). Only 7,000 permanent government jobs were shed during the month, though economists expect that number to rise as state and local governments face crippling budget deficits. The other 114,000 new claims represent the last major layoff of temporary census workers, who rejoin an army of job seekers that have collectively become one of America’s most structural economic challenges.

Obviously plenty of reason for the markets to celebrate.

Now for the bad news.

On the same day as the ISM Manufacturing survey was released to considerable fanfare, July’s construction spending was released by the Census Bureau and confirmed a worsening year-over-year decline of nearly 11%. Month over month, spending was down 1% in July and suggests another downward revision to third quarter GDP. More from Goldman:

Construction outlays dropped 1% in July from a level that was revised down a whopping 2.7%. This dismal construction report flew below the market’s radar, as it normally does since it usually comes out alongside the ISM manufacturing survey. One might dub construction outlays the Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) of US economic indicators. Of all the data released this week, it has the most direct bearing on the real GDP “bean count” next to the monthly consumption report. Hence, since consumption was only modestly better than expected, a case can be made that third-quarter growth might actually be lower now than we thought a week ago despite all the upside surprises.

Wednesday also revealed that another source of bullish sentiment in July may have been a little premature: auto sales. After months of steep retail incentives and easy year-over-year growth comparisons, cash- and credit-strapped Americans returned to a more cautious consumption path. As the second largest leveraged purchase in a typical household, auto sales reflected that shift. Only Chrysler, the runt of the litter, managed to squeak out an increase in sales in an otherwise sluggish retail environment.

Finally, on Friday the latest ISM Non-Manufacturing survey was released and was every bit as disappointing as everyone expected the manufacturing survey to be. The index slowed to 51.5% in August from 54.3% in July and 55.4% in May, and its components were even less rosy. From Econoday:

A new optimism after today’s jobs report — not so fast. The ISM non-manufacturing report shows broad and deeper-than-expected slowing. New orders at 52.4 are down more than four points in August for the slowest rate of month-to-month growth so far this year. Employment, which in this report includes government workers, is signaling contraction, at 48.2 for a nearly three point decline for the worst reading since January. The composite headline index at 51.5 is down exactly three points for what is also the worst reading since January. Backlog orders are basically flat, export orders are down, deliveries are showing less delays, and general business activity is slower. Imports did rise as did raw material prices.

In response, the market cut its morning gains in half, only to rally into the close to retest the morning highs. What makes this week’s schizophrenic ISM interpretations so dangerous is that the upside surprise on Wednesday was based on data that captures roughly a third of the economy, while Friday’s non-manufacturing disappointment approximates activity in roughly two-thirds of the economy. So of course the markets ended the week up 3%.

Once again, Goldman’s analysts try to walk a fine line between sell-side optimism and buy-side skepticism:

On the whole, it’s been a good week for US economic data…reports on factory activity, pending home sales, and the labor market have surprised to the high side. In fact, some of these readings have benefited from positive judgmental adjustments, as factors not readily apparent in the headline indicator have also been better than expected. However, this does not mean that the outlook for US economic activity has improved, except insofar as the better-than-expected news eases market worries about a “double dip”. At least some – perhaps most – of the improvement … reflects what Paul Krugman once called, in a much different context, “The Age of Diminished Expectations”. In the current setting, we note that several prominent forecasters have marked down forecasts of economic activity and therefore may also have lowered their sights on the higher frequency indicators.

Interpretive bias is inevitable when any new data is released. Optimists will quickly find a silver lining in any dark cloud, and pessimists will pick apart even the most robust reports of growth and tease out a bearish narrative. Investors should think twice when these competing forces fall out of balance — when markets are as unabashedly bearish as they were in late 2008, or as unapologetically bullish as the were during the second half of 2009.

If the first few days of September are any indication of how the month will unfold, we may be back on the perma-bull track. When disappointing data is released, investors cheer for more fiscal and monetary stimulus. When data is surprisingly positive, investors cheer at the prospect of a sustainable, organic recovery. As we saw in early 2010, this “heads I win, tails you lose” mentality is particularly vulnerable to rapid and substantial  correction, and a September that entered as a lion may finish the third quarter as a lamb.