Last week was a relatively subdued week in terms of economic data, with the highlight perhaps being the weekly initial unemployment claims, which were unchanged (a stronger-than-expected result). This data helps confirm that improvements in the labor market have been gaining traction. This Friday we will see the February employment report and most economists are calling for a new jobs number of 200,000 or higher with a flat or perhaps slightly lower unemployment rate.
One area of the economy that has long been troubled is the residential housing sector, but this area of the economy is beginning to show some limited signs of improvement. New home sales, mortgage applications and home building levels are all showing some gains and the large inventory of unsold homes is beginning to clear. We believe that the housing market remains in the midst of a multi-year bottoming process that began in 2009 and we expect that residential construction will be a modest positive contributor to growth in 2012, as it was last year.
From a global perspective, the world economy has experienced a decent start to 2012, but the ongoing recovery does have some risks and question marks. Fiscal policy remains tight in some quarters of the globe and there is still room for easing (as we saw with the Bank of Japan's recent decision to enact some new quantitative easing measures). Additionally, ongoing debt deleveraging remains a concern, as does the recent move higher in oil prices. Of course, we would also add the ongoing European debt crisis to the list of issues that could potentially disrupt the global economy's positive momentum.
Several of the risks that we have been discussing for some time now have ebbed over the last several months, such as the removal of the uncertainty over the US payroll tax cut extension, some additional clarity over the Greek debt restructuring and China's policy easing and likely economic soft landing. An additional risk, however, has surfaced in the form of higher oil prices. The oil price spike from early 2011 is fresh in investors' minds and the recent advance in oil prices has some wondering whether history will repeat itself. Last year's price spike came as a result of social and political unrest throughout the Middle East and in North Africa and this year escalating geopolitical tensions with Iran has been the primary culprit.
While higher oil prices are a negative for global economic growth and have the potential to act as a drag on equity markets, the scale of the recent increase has still been relatively modest. To put it in context, oil prices have advanced by around 20% over the last few months. In contrast, oil jumped 50% between September 2010 and March 2011. While higher oil prices bear watching, we would not consider oil a significant risk unless the price increase grows more severe.
Equity risk premiums have fallen in recent months as markets have rallied and we do believe that there is room for further advances. At the same time, however, we expect the pace of price appreciation to become slower and more uneven. As we have been saying for the last couple of weeks, we would not be surprised to see some sort of pullback or correction in the near term, but we also believe that stock prices will end the year higher than where they are today.
Thank you for your continued confidence in Martone Capital Management.
We welcome your comments and questions.
William A. Martone - President CLU, ChFC
Michael C. Martone - Registered Principal
William Martone is President and Senior Portfolio Manager of Martone Capital Management, Inc., which was founded in 1994. Bill has almost 40 years of experience in the financial services industry and manages portfolios for both individual investors and pension funds using multiple investment strategies. Bill is a Chartered Financial Consultant, Chartered Life Underwriter, and New York State Registered Investment Advisor. He is frequently quoted in the Westchester Journal Business News as well as other publications. Martone Capital Management was featured on CNNfn.