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Economy

U.S. consumer sentiment near 11-year low; import prices unchanged in April

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People refuel their vehicles with gasoline at a Shell gas station in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 10, 2022. REUTERS/Bing Guan

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By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer sentiment slumped to its lowest level in nearly 11 years in early May as worries about inflation persisted, but consumer spending remains underpinned by a strong labor market and massive savings, which should keep the economy expanding.

The University of Michigan’s survey on Friday showed the deterioration in sentiment was across all demographics, as well as geographical and political affiliation. Gasoline prices and the stock market have a heavy weighting in the survey.

Gasoline prices resumed their upward trend this month, setting an average record high of $4.432 per gallon on Friday, according to AAA. Fears that the Federal Reserve will have to aggressively tighten monetary policy to bring down inflation have unleashed a massive stock sell-off on Wall Street.

“Just because consumers resent paying higher prices and are suffering limited availability doesn’t mean they aren’t still making those purchases,” said Michael Pearce, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics in New York. “As goods shortages and prices ease over the rest of this year, we expect confidence will bounce back.”

The University of Michigan’ preliminary consumer sentiment index tumbled 9.4% to 59.1 early this month, the lowest reading since August 2011. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index dipping to 64.

The survey’s gauge of current economic conditions dropped 8.4% to 63.6. That was the lowest reading since 2013, and 36% of consumers attributed their negative assessment to inflation. Its measure of consumer expectations declined 9.9% to 56.3.

Consumers viewed buying conditions for long-lasting manufactured goods as the worst since the survey started tracking the series in 1978.

“The dip in confidence does not warrant any immediate change to our near-term forecast for consumer spending as the relationship between spending and sentiment is loose, particularly in the short run,” said Scott Hoyt, a senior economist at Moody’s (NYSE:MCO) Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Even as consumers stressed about high prices, long-term inflation expectations appeared to be anchored.

The survey’s one-year inflation expectations were at 5.4% for the third straight month. Its five-year inflation expectations were unchanged at 3.0% for the fourth month in a row.

Stocks on Wall Street rebounded after a tumultuous week, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury yields rose.

INFLATION LIKELY PEAKED

Though inflation is likely to remain elevated, there are growing signs that price pressures have peaked.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed import prices were unexpectedly flat in April as a decline in the cost of petroleum offset gains in food and other products. Import prices had surged 2.9% in March.

Economists had forecast import prices, which exclude tariffs, would climb 0.6%. In the 12 months through April, import prices rose 12.0% after accelerating 13.0% in the year through March.

Government data this week showed monthly consumer prices increased at the slowest pace in eight months, while the gain in producer prices was the smallest since last September.

With oil prices drifting higher in May, monthly import, consumer and producer prices are likely to pick up. Annual inflation rates are expected to continue edging lower, though likely to stay above the Fed’s 2% target.

The deceleration is mostly the result of last year’s big increases dropping out of the calculation.

The U.S. central last week raised its policy interest rate by half a percentage point, the biggest hike in 22 years, and said it would begin trimming its bond holdings next month. The Fed started raising rates in March.

Imported fuel prices dropped 2.4% last month after soaring 17.3% in March. Petroleum prices declined 2.9%, while the cost of imported food increased 0.9%. Prices of imported capital goods rose 0.4%, matching March’s gain.

The cost of imported consumer goods excluding motor vehicles was unchanged. Prices of imported motor vehicles and parts climbed 0.3%. Excluding fuel and food, import prices rose 0.4%. These so-called core import prices advanced 1.3% in March. They increased 6.9% on a year-on-year basis in April.

Some of the slowdown in the monthly core import price gains reflect the dollar’s strength against the currencies of the United States’ main trade partners. The greenback has gained about 2.65% on a trade-weighted basis since the Fed started raising interest rates.

The report also showed export prices rose 0.6% in April after surging 4.1% in March. Prices for agricultural exports advanced 1.1%, a slowdown from the 4.3% acceleration logged in March. Higher prices in April for corn, cotton, meat and nuts more than offset lower prices for wheat and soybeans.

Nonagricultural export prices rose 0.5%. Export prices increased 18.0% on a year-on-year basis in April. That followed an 18.6% advance in March.

Economy

Fed’s Evans backs ‘front-loaded’ rate hikes, then measured pace

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans looks on during the Global Interdependence Center Members Delegation Event in Mexico City, Mexico, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Dan Burns

(Reuters) – Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans on Tuesday said he supports an initial burst of monetary policy tightening, and then a more “measured” pace of rate hikes to allow time to assess inflation and the impact of higher borrowing costs on the job market.

“I think front-loading is important to speed up the necessary tightening of financial conditions, as well as for demonstrating our commitment to restrain inflation, thus helping to keep inflationary expectations in check,” Evans said in remarks prepared for delivery to Money Marketeers of New York University.

Inflation, running at more than three times the Fed’s 2% target, is “much too high,” Evans said, and the Fed should raise its policy rate “expeditiously” to a neutral range of about 2.25%-2.5%.

Fed policymakers have begun doing so. They raised rates by a bigger-than-usual half-of-a-percentage point earlier this month, to a range of 0.75%-1%, and Fed Chair Jerome Powell signaled at least two more such rate hikes to come. The Fed also plans to start trimming its $9 trillion balance sheet next month.

But Evans’ preference for transitioning to a more “measured pace” – a phrase that in the past has meant quarter-point rate hikes — sounded a bit more dovish than Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who spoke earlier in the day.

The central bank, Powell told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, will keep “pushing” on rate hikes until it sees inflation move down in a “clear and convincing way” and will not hesitate to move more aggressively it that does not happen.

Evans said that slowing the pace of rate hikes after an initial front-loading would give the Fed time to check if supply chain kinks ease, and to evaluate inflation dynamics and the impact of higher borrowing costs on what called a “downright tight” labor market.

Unemployment is at 3.6% and job openings are at a record high.

“If we need to, we will be well positioned to respond more aggressively if inflation conditions do not improve sufficiently or, alternatively, to scale back planned adjustments if economic conditions soften in a way that threatens our employment mandate,” Evans said.

With inflation pressures as broad and strong as they are, he said, interest rates may need to rise “somewhat” above neutral to bring down inflation.

Traders are betting on that, with prices in futures contracts tied to the Fed’s policy rate reflecting expectations for an end-of-year policy rate range of 2.75%-3%.

But in Evans’ view that doesn’t mean the Fed will end up triggering a recession, as critics including several former U.S. central bankers have recently warned.

“Given the current strength in aggregate demand, strong demand for workers, and the supply-side improvements that I expect to be coming, I believe a modestly restrictive stance will still be consistent with a growing economy,” Evans said.

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Economy

Australian banks enter tech arms race as rising rates squeeze profit

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of a Commonwealth Bank of Australia branch in Sydney, Australia, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

2/4

By Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The 10-minute home loan – at the tap of a smartphone screen – is emerging as the next frontier in Australian banking as rising interest rates quash a pandemic-fuelled property boom, eating into mortgage income and renewing focus on cost-cutting tech.

The Big Four lenders booked blockbuster profit during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a leap of nearly one-third in property prices since 2020, but raging inflation brought a shock rate hike this month and expectations of several more.

That has left banks, which make most of their profit from mortgages, looking to automate every step of the loan process and cut overheads such as staffing and real estate to keep growing profit from what analysts say may be a shrinking pool of money.

So far only Commonwealth Bank of Australia (OTC:CMWAY) (CBA), the biggest lender, has put a speed target on its automation drive. It said a fully digitised loan service that went live on Tuesday could process an application in as little as 10 minutes.

But in earnings updates this month, National Australia Bank (OTC:NABZY) Ltd (NAB), Westpac Banking (NYSE:WBK) Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ) all pointed to automation to offset the impact of a cooling property market.

“They’re incentivised to invest in tech and get up to where CBA is because it drives people online,” said Hugh Dive, chief investment officer at Atlas (NYSE:ATCO) Funds Management, which holds shares of major banks.

“They can improve profit without growing their top line.”

Citi banking analyst Brendan Sproules in a client note said chief executive officers face an “endless battle to transform their 1970s/80s process and systems into the modern digital age”.

“A rising cash rate might just provide the opportunity to accelerate this transformation along faster than we first thought.”

Instead of filling in paper forms and supplying documents, to be verified and analysed by back-office staff, a customer would enter the address of a property they planned to buy plus their bank account login. Their computer or smartphone camera would confirm their identity.

Algorithms figure out the rest, such as employment history and probable purchase price.

A bank employee only steps in if the software picks up discrepancies in the data, people who work on loan automation software said.

Some smaller and online-only lenders already automate mortgage applications but – until now – not the Big Four, which dominate Australia’s A$10 trillion ($7.00 trillion) housing market with three-quarters of loans by value.

“What we’re seeing right now is a lot of optimisation using existing processes, using existing loan origination systems,” said Hessel Verbeek, head of banking strategy at KPMG Australia.

“The room for improvement will include when people actually start to replace some of the key systems.”

Banks have not specified how much money they plan to spend automating mortgage approvals, nor how much they would save.

Of the A$3.6 billion the Big Four invested in the first half of the 2022 financial year, 35% went to “productivity and growth”, versus 32% a year earlier, showed data from KPMG.

NAB, the second-biggest lender, said last week its “investment in customer experience, efficiency and sustainable revenue” rose 46% in October-March from the same period a year earlier, to A$228 million. It said it wants every home loan automated by 2024.

ANZ, which has been losing mortgages for two years as understaffing led to a surge in approval times, said it has only begun work digitising processes.

“There’s no doubt we’ve got some catching up to do,” CEO Shayne Elliott was quoted as saying in The Australian.

SLOW START

Banks were slow to start automating retail products partly because large compliance and risk management overhauls sapped both investment budgets and management attention since regulatory scrutiny dramatically increased in 2018, analysts and industry participants said.

Rebecca Engel, head of Microsoft Corp (NASDAQ:MSFT)’s Australian financial services unit, said there was a “massive increase in investment, deployment, acceptance and trust in technology” by banks in tandem with heightened regulatory attention and higher transaction volume during the pandemic.

“The goal should be higher levels of assurance, higher levels of quality, at a lower cost,” Engel told Reuters.

“That is driven by technology.”

($1 = 1.4282 Australian dollars)

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Economy

Wall Street ends sharply higher, fueled by Apple

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Wall Street sign is pictured outside the New York Stock Exchange in New York, October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Amruta Khandekar and Noel Randewich

(Reuters) – Wall Street finished sharply higher on Tuesday, lifted by Apple, Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and other megacap growth stocks after strong retail sales in April eased worries about slowing economic growth.

Ten of the 11 major S&P sector indexes advanced, with financials, materials and technology among the top performers.

Investors were cheered by data showing U.S. retail sales increased 0.9% in April as consumers bought motor vehicles amid an improvement in supply and frequented restaurants.

Recently punished shares of Microsoft Corp (NASDAQ:MSFT), Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL), Tesla Inc and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) drove the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq higher.

Tuesday’s broad rally followed weeks of selling on the U.S. stock market that last week saw the S&P 500 sink to its lowest level since March 2021.

“The largest pockets of stocks that investors tend to buy have been essentially beaten up. They’re either in correction or bear market territory,” said Sylvia Jablonski, chief investment officer of Defiance ETF. “I think investors are looking at these opportunities to buy on the dip, and I suspect that today is a good day to do that.”

The S&P 500 Banks index jumped, with Citigroup (NYSE:C) climbing after Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa) disclosed a nearly $3 billion investment in the U.S. lender.

Another set of economic data showed industrial production accelerated 1.1% last month, higher than estimates of 0.5%, and faster than a 0.9% advance in March.

“This is consistent with continued economic growth in the second quarter and not a recession underway,” said Bill Adams, chief economist for Comerica (NYSE:CMA) Bank in Dallas.

The U.S. Federal Reserve will “keep pushing” to tighten U.S. monetary policy until it is clear inflation is declining, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said at an event on Tuesday.

Traders are pricing in an 85% chance of a 50-basis point rate hike in June.

According to preliminary data, the S&P 500 gained 81.54 points, or 2.03%, to end at 4,089.55 points, while the Nasdaq Composite gained 323.23 points, or 2.77%, to 11,986.02. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 432.62 points, or 1.35%, to 32,659.17.

Walmart (NYSE:WMT) Inc tumbled after the retail giant cut its annual profit forecast, signaling a bigger hit to margins.

Retailers Costco (NASDAQ:COST), Target (NYSE:TGT) and Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR) also fell.

United Airlines Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL) Inc gained after the carrier lifted its current-quarter revenue forecast, boosting shares of Delta Air, American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and Spirit Airlines (NYSE:SAVE).

A positive first-quarter earnings season has been overshadowed by worries about the conflict in Ukraine, soaring inflation, COVID-19 lockdowns in China and aggressive policy tightening by central banks.

The S&P 500 is down about 14% so far in 2022, and the Nasdaq is off around 24%, hit by tumbling growth stocks.

U.S.-listed Chinese stocks jumped on hopes that China will ease its crackdown on the technology sector.

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