WASHINGTON: Nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for US unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen under certain restrictions.
The wave of layoffs has heightened concerns that more government aid is needed to sustain the economy through the deep recession caused by the viral outbreak.
Republicans in Congress are locked in a standoff with Democrats, who have proposed trillions more in aid, including for struggling states and localities, beyond the nearly $3 trillion already given to individuals and businesses.
Republican leaders say they want to first see how previous aid affects the economy and have expressed skepticism about approving much more spending now.
Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus first forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.
An additional 842,000 people applied for aid last week through a separate federal program set up for the self-employed and gig workers.
All told, the figures point to a job market gripped by its worst crisis in decades and an economy that is sinking into a severe downturn. The report suggests the tentative reopening of some businesses in many states has done little to reverse the flow of mass layoffs. Last week’s pace of new applications for aid is four times the record high that prevailed before the coronavirus struck hard in March.
Jobless workers in some states are still reporting difficulty applying for or receiving benefits. These include free-lance, gig and self-employed workers, who became newly eligible for jobless aid this year.
In Georgia, one of the first states to partially reopen its economy, the number of unemployment claims rose last week to 241,000. In Florida, which has allowed restaurants to reopen at one-quarter capacity, claims jumped to nearly 222,000, though that state’s unemployment agency has struggled to process claims. Other states that have lifted some restrictions, such as South Carolina and Texas, reported large declines in claims.
President Donald Trump appeared to respond to the report by tweeting, “Good numbers coming out of States that are opening. America is getting its life back!”
The latest jobless claims follow a devastating jobs report last week. The government said the unemployment rate soared to 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression, and employers shed a stunning 20.5 million jobs. A decade’s worth of job growth was wiped out in a single month.
Even those figures failed to capture the full scale of the damage. The government said many workers in April were counted as employed but absent from work but should have been counted as temporarily unemployed.
Millions of other laid-off workers didn’t look for a new job in April, likely discouraged by their prospects in a mostly shuttered economy, and weren’t included, either. If all those people had been counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would have reached nearly 24%.
Most economists have forecast that the official unemployment rate could hit 18% or higher in May before potentially declining by summer.
The job market’s collapse has occurred with dizzying speed. As recently as February, the unemployment rate was 3.5%, a half-century low. Employers had added jobs for a record 9½ years. Even in March, unemployment was just 4.4%.
Now, with few Americans shopping, traveling, eating out or otherwise spending normally, economists are projecting that the gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic activity — is shrinking in the April-June quarter at a roughly 40% annual rate. That would be the deepest quarterly contraction on record.
The states that are now easing lockdowns are doing so in varied ways. Ohio has permitted warehouses, most offices, factories, and construction companies to reopen, but restaurants and bars remain closed for indoor sit-down service.
A handful of states have gone further, including Georgia, which has opened barber shops, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and gyms. South Carolina has reopened beach hotels, and Texas has reopened shopping malls.
Data from private firms suggest that some previously laid-off workers have started to return to small businesses in those states, though the number of applications for unemployment benefits remains high.
Few analysts expect a quick rebound. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned Wednesday that the virus-induced recession could turn into a prolonged downturn that would erode workers’ skills and employment connections while bankrupting many small businesses. Powell urged Congress and the White House to consider additional spending and tax measures to help small businesses and households avoid bankruptcy.
Powell spoke a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, proposed a $3 trillion aid package that would direct money to state and local governments, households and health-care workers.
Trump is applauding the moves to reopen states’ economies in hopes of reducing unemployment. So far, there is limited evidence on how that is working.
Homebase, a software company that provides time-clock technology to small businesses, has tracked how many employees have clocked in and for how many hours since the pandemic struck. Though Homebase’s data suggests that some people have returned to work in states that have partially reopened, it’s unclear how sustainable that trend can be unless many more customers return. All states remain far below their pre-virus employment levels.
In Georgia, which began reopening in late April, the number of people working at small businesses on Tuesday was down 37% compared with the beginning of March, according to Homebase’s data. That is an improvement from mid-April, when the number of employees working had fallen by half.
In New York, which remains mostly shut down, employment at small businesses is down 63% as of Tuesday, only slightly better than in mid-April.
Market Loses 500 Points, More Pain Could Be In Store For Investors
With the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping as much as 900 points yesterday before recovering to close out “only” 500 points lower, many are speculating that there’s even more pain in store for investors over the coming weeks.
One of the big differences with yesterday’s plunge was the stocks that slipped the most. Earlier in September, tech and growth stocks fell the most during the market pullback. Yesterday, it was the cyclical stocks that were heavily tied to economic recovery.
Sam Stovall, the chief market strategist at CFRA, wonders if the possibility of a second lockdown has spooked investors.
“Things had to have changed for investors to be so nervous. With Europe starting to see a sharp increase in Covid cases, does that mean they’re going to reimpose shutdowns?”
He also says that the weak recovery from the early-September pullback indicated more drops before the market would finally march higher.
“Because the recovery from the earlier Sept. 8 low was so anemic, it was an indication that the market needed to go through more backing and filling before it’s ready to advance.”
Technical analysts are now pointing to the 200-day moving average as a potential battle line for the markets. That currently stands at 3,104.
Scott Redler, a technical strategist and partner with T3Live.com, says the S&P 500’s next test could be the psychological level of 3,200 before potentially slipping down to the 200-day moving average. “I would say there’s a high probability we at least test 3,200 if not the 200-day.”
He added that the S&P 500 chart looks to be forming a head and shoulders chart pattern, which is a negative sign for stocks. “That would give us a measured move down to 3,136,” he said.
Redler said the market has been flashing warning signs that a bigger sell-off was in store.
“There are four or five things that are nipping at the heels of the market,” he said. “In the last two weeks there have been many signals that this kind of action could happen.”
Paul LaRosa, the chief market technician at Maxim Group, also thinks a larger market plunge is in store. He said he expects the S&P could dip as low as 3,100, and Nasdaq could drop under 10,000 if it breaks support at 10,639. He said the Dow should see support at 27,450 but could slip down to 26,000.
Stovall added that the markets are in a seasonally negative time. This comes with September the worst month of the year on average. He also warns that with the end of the month coinciding with the end of the quarter, losses could accelerate as big investors rebalance their portfolios before the month-end.
Peter Boockvar, chief investment strategist at Bleakley Advisory Group, says we could be seeing investors shifting back to the “work from home” stocks as fears of a second lockdown grow.
“I think some of it is that [cyclicals] had a good month. I think you have the algorithms that say to buy the stay-at-home names after the drubbing that went on in Europe, with the possibility of the U.K. crackdown again, and what that means for growth. To me, this is an allocation shift. Let’s go back to buying Zoom, Walmart and Peloton and selling anything that’s leisure or travel-related. The sell-off in tech that started in early September started a very different tenor in the market. We were on a much more vulnerable footing going into today.”
Gold Will Climb To $2,200 An Ounce By Year End, Says Industry Insider
Ronald-Peter Stoeferle, the managing partner of Incrementum, says gold is in a “stealth” bull market. Additionally, he expects prices to climb above $2,200 per ounce by the end of the year.
Speaking with Kitco News, Stoeferle says proof of the stealth bull market in gold is actually silver outperforming gold and junior mining stocks outperforming senior mining stocks.
“It’s pretty obvious, we’re in a stealth bull market in gold. What are the reasons for that? First of all, we’re seeing that gold is rising in every currency. Gold is up 27% in US dollar terms, we’re seeing that silver is outperforming gold, so silver is up almost 50% since the beginning of the year, so the gold/silver ratio is falling is a great confirmation for the strength of gold. Then we are seeing that actually the mining equities are outperforming the price of gold itself, so we are seeing outperformance of the large caps versus gold, we are seeing the juniors outperform the seniors, those are all confirmations.”
A Sign of a Healthy Bull Market?
He says the recent pullback in gold prices is also a positive sign of a healthy bull market. Stoeferle says there was too much optimism as prices climbed and sentiment got too high.
“We saw that when gold went over $2,000 everyone was writing about gold and sentiment felt a bit too positive. Then we came down, but it seems that there’s so much capital waiting on the sidelines at the moment that we just don’t see any deeper correction. Can gold go to $1800, $1850? Of course. But it is just normal and healthy within the course of this bull market to take a breather.”
Institutional demand will take gold to $2,200 an ounce by the end of the year, according to Stoeferle.
“September from a seasonal perspective is one of the very best months for gold and I think we can easily go to $2,200 or even higher by the end of the year. The important message is we are in a stealth bull market, I think this party has only just begun, and we are seeing the most important driver going forward is the institutional demand is coming back and I think that is what is really going to move the price of gold.”
Benefits of Higher Inflation
He says that gold investors, mining stock investors and central bankers make odd bedfellows; all three benefit from one thing: higher inflation.
“Just look at inflation-sensitive assets like TIPS and also gold, silver, the commodity space, they are all rising pretty strongly in the last couple of months, so I think the market is already telling us: be careful, inflation is on the horizon. And that’s actually what the Federal Reserve and central bankers and politicians want. So you could say that gold investors and mining investors are basically sitting in the same boat as central bankers, which feels a bit odd.”
Very few investment managers have lived through a period of strong inflation or even stagflation, and Stoeferle says that means many will be caught under-invested as gold prices rise.
“The average investment manager nowadays is 52-years old so they have never experienced a period of long, strong inflation or even stagflation. So I think this will catch many, many investors on the wrong foot. And at the moment, 0.5% of all assets are invested in gold. So basically there is no allocation at the moment and this will change, and I think really this year marked the beginning of the public participation phase.”
That small allocation to gold will change as people start looking around for the best inflation hedge, says Stoeferle.
“I think with inflation being really what central banks and politicians want to see and want to achieve, many many investors will have to consider “what’s the best inflation hedge out there?” and I think gold made a really solid case not only over the last few decades but over the last couple of centuries.”
Allocation for Gold
Finally, he says a rule of thumb he has come up with is for 8% of your investment portfolio to be allocated towards gold. However, he acknowledges that there are many variables for each investor.
“We crunched the numbers and we came to a rule of thumb of 8-10%. But I think it doesn’t make any sense to stick to those numbers because it depends on the rest of your portfolio, it depends on your time preference, it depends on your risk preference and so on, but if you believe that inflation will become a concern, if you think that real rates will stay very low, if you believe at some point we will have to deal with our debt, then I think you should have a pretty high allocation to gold and also the mining space.”
The Pandemic Is Transforming to Digital Economy
Even before coronavirus, paper money and coins are generally considered dirty. With a full-blown pandemic, people are less willing to go outside and buy items. And even when they did, they avoided carrying cash to use it to pay for everything. By September, the pandemic has changed the way people look at cashless transactions. And the companies handling this digital economy? They’re laughing their way to the bank.
Cashless is King
Last February, mobile payment company Square reported that 5.4% of its stores are cashless. By April, the number of stores jumped to 23.2%. The number went down to 13.4% in August when the government eased restrictions.
For the same Square vendors, 37% of transactions were cash. Once Covid-19 went full-blown, it dropped to 33% by August. Compared to the year before, it stood at 40%. Under normal circumstances, a 7% drop usually takes three years to happen.
Only 13.2% of Square outlets accepted online payments last February. By August, that number rose to 40%. Meanwhile, contactless payments increased 6.6% from February to August, settling at 70%.
Square economist Felipe Chacon thinks the new normal has included methods of payment. He said: “These new findings show a significant and stabilizing increase in cashless adoption rates compared to pre-pandemic, with business owners reliant upon contactless and online payments and consumers utilizing those alternatives. This signals that COVID-19 has already had what will likely be a lasting impact on consumer behavior.”
Fintech Outperforming Traditional Banks
As cashless/online payment gained ground, financial tech owners began growing too. CNBC reports that the total worth of Square, Visa, PayPal, and MasterCard is $1.07 trillion. This amount eclipsed the market value of America’s big six banks. Together, the value of JPMorgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs is below $900 billion.
Investors have rewarded these companies, pushing their stock prices to new highs. Visa has grown from $180.82 in August 2019 and is now $215.71 a year later. Mastercard shares now cost $366.12 last August 28, but it was $281.37 a year before. Paypal increased from $109.05 in August 2019 to $204.48 after a year. Square rose from $61.84 to $155.93 in the same period.
These companies are now pushing forward to make their brands provide more. Square announced last Tuesday that Cash-App users can now get their wages ahead of payday. This encourages cardholders to connect their app with their direct deposit payroll. Venmo, a PayPal subsidiary, also lets users access earned wages. Meanwhile, banks need to deal with increasing loan defaults and low-interest rates.
The March of the Apps
With the pandemic, people have now ditched passbooks and purses and switched to apps. It’s not only bank apps, but also an investment and financial planning apps. People will likely stick with the apps even after the crisis blows over.
In a CNN interview, Plaid CEO Zach Perret noted the increase in users. He said: “What we’ve seen is that consumers during this period have increased their reliance on digital financial services built by banks but also, built by non-banks.”
Plaid is the digital infrastructure provider that links bank accounts to the apps. From March to May 2020, Plaid’s partner firms recorded a 44% increase in new users compared to last year. Despite the pandemic, Plaid had to hire an extra 20% of workers to keep up with demand. “I think the pandemic has made it incredibly clear that digital financial services are here to stay,” Perret said. Visa and Plaid have earlier announced that the former will buy the latter for $5.3 billion.
PayPal expects 70 million users new accounts this year, double the rate from 2019. Even the traditional banks saw its users shift to its digital persona. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan reported an influx of a million mobile account users. 22% of them were senior citizens who used to resist the bank’s digital versions. Merill Lynch’s digital log-ins spiked more than 100% from 2019. Even Robinhood, the popular stock trading app, outpaced gambling apps. With American millennials stuck at home, they used the time to bet on stocks. Robinhood traders were instrumental in fueling a Wall Street rally earlier this year. Last May, the app reported adding 3 million new users.
Watch this as CNBC’s Closing Bell talks about how fintech demand has been affected by the pandemic:
Digital transactions are fast becoming part of the new normal. Not only are they designed for the pandemic, but they will also offer convenience after the outbreaks have passed. Do you have digital accounts in place at present? If not, what is holding you back? Share with us your opinions on how you plan to participate in the digital economy.
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