Friday, January 17, 2020
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Consumer, labor, housing data impress and stocks hit new highs
In the December 17, 2019 edition of the Morning Brief newsletter, we said the stock market was catching up to the economy. The stock market had just hit record highs. Housing and manufacturing data had topped expectations. The economic data was filling in the blanks of the story the stock market had been telling investors for a couple months: better days are ahead.
Exactly one month later, the story is once again worth reiterating.
On Thursday, all three major indexes closed at record highs. For the second time in history, the Dow (^DJI) closed above 29,000. And the stock market continues to both indicate better times ahead, while the data continue bolstering the economic story implied by frothy financial markets.
During Thursday morning’s economic data deluge, investors were treated to solid data on the state of the U.S. consumer, the labor market, and the housing market.
The week’s most anticipated economic figure — the December reading on retail sales — impressed. Sales rose 0.3% over the prior month, matching both Wall Street estimates and the increase seen in each of the last two months.
But the data got better when looking at “core” retail sales (which exclude autos, gas, and building materials) as December saw a 0.5% improvement in “core” sales, a notable pickup from the 0.1% advance seen in November.
Core sales are also what feeds into GDP, and analysts at Oxford Economics note this data suggest real consumer spending rose at an annualized rate of 2.2% in the fourth quarter, with overall GDP growth now on track to advance 2.5% to finish the year. Elsewhere, Bloomberg’s consumer comfort index rose to its highest level since October 2000.
“A critical question as we begin this new decade is whether the US consumer can continue to pull more than its weight,” Oxford Economics said in a note published Thursday. “Resilient labor market conditions, surging stock prices, and lower gasoline prices all came together to prop up consumer outlays last year, but we expect this powerful combination to fade gradually.”
Part of Oxford’s analysis is due to what it calls “cooler” employment trends. In December, for instance, the U.S. economy created 145,000 jobs — fewer than expected and a notable slowdown from November’s job gains of 260,000.
Some investors had also grown wary of the labor market due to weekly initial jobless claims data, which had been somewhat elevated at the end of 2019. Thursday’s reading, however, should quell some of these concerns.
Jobless data fell to 204,000 for the week ending January 11, the lowest level for claims since early November. Economists expected claims would rise modestly to 220,000.
Ian Shepherdson at Pantheon Macroeconomics said Thursday that, “Claims have now reversed their early December spike, which was due to seasonal adjustment problems after Thanksgiving. The trend likely remains about 215K, a record low as a share of the employed workforce.”
The January sentiment index from the National Association of Home Builders released Thursday also showed continued positivity in the housing sector. The index registered a reading of 75, just one point below December’s 20-year high. The last two months mark the highest sentiment levels for home builders since July 1999.
NAHB chief economist Robert Dietz said in a release Thursday that, “with the Federal Reserve on pause and attractive mortgage rates, the steady rise in single-family construction that began last spring will continue into 2020.”
Dietz notes, however, that the housing market is still grappling with headwinds we’ve seen in place for years: A lack of labor to build and a lack of inventory for starter homes.
Which aren’t bad problems to have.
By Myles Udland, reporter and co-anchor of The Final Round. Follow him at @MylesUdland
What to watch today
8:30 a.m. ET: Building Permits, December (1.467 million expected, 1.482 million in November)
8:30 a.m. ET: Housing Starts, December (1.380 million expected, 1.365 million in November)
9:15 a.m. ET: Capacity Utilization, December (77.2% expected, 77.3% in November); Industrial Production month-on-month, December (0.0% expected, 1.1% in November)
10 a.m. ET: University of Michigan Sentiment, January preliminary (99.2 expected, 99.3 prior)
Notable reports include Kansas City Southern (KSU), JB Hunt (JBHT), Schlumberger (SLB), Fastenal (FAST) and State Street (STT)
Google parent Alphabet market cap hits $1 trillion [Reuters]
China posts weakest growth in 29 years as trade war bites, but ends 2019 on better note [Reuters]
Gap pulls plug on Old Navy spinoff to focus on turning around sales [Reuters]
YAHOO FINANCE HIGHLIGHTS
DoubleLine’s roundtable of experts highlight a big risk lurking in the stock market
Trump’s Apple threat would put every iPhone on Earth at risk
Coca-Cola’s Powerade adds new products to its lineup
Editor’s Note: Morning Brief will be observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, January 20. It will resume on Tuesday, January 21.
Follow Yahoo Finance on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, SmartNews, LinkedIn, YouTube, and reddit.
Streaming TV’s Boom Is a Mixed Blessing for Some Hollywood Writers
LOS ANGELES — It seemed like a good deal. At first.
Last April, Netflix offered Kay Reindl and her longtime writing partner a substantial sum — in the mid-six figures, Ms. Reindl said — to oversee 10 episodes of a new sci-fi series, “Sentient.” It sounded like a lot of money for what they figured would be less than a year of work.
Ms. Reindl and her writing partner, who have worked steadily as TV writers since the 1990s, would be executive producers, instead of staff writers on someone else’s show. That would mean a lot more responsibility and much longer hours, but it seemed worth it. They found office space and hired a few writers.
Then came a surprise: they learned that “Sentient” would actually take 18 months from start to finish. When Ms. Reindl did the math, she realized that, under the new timetable, she would be making roughly the same weekly pay as the writers she was overseeing.
“It was a very bad day,” Ms. Reindl said.
Netflix declined to comment.
The rise of streaming has been a blessing and a curse for working writers like Ms. Reindl, who said she and her partner had ultimately left “Sentient” because of creative differences unrelated to the length of the series. On-demand digital video has ushered in the era of Peak TV, meaning there are more shows and more writing jobs than ever. But many of the jobs are not what they used to be in the days before streaming.
“All this opportunity is great, but how to navigate it and keep yourself consistently working and making your living has been the challenging part,” said Stu Zicherman, a writer and showrunner whose credits include “The Americans” on FX and HBO’s “Divorce.”
When Ms. Reindl got her start, network series had 24 episodes or more a season. The typical TV writer’s schedule looked something like this: Get hired by May or June, write furiously for most of the year, and then take a six-week hiatus before the process started again.
The seasonal rhythms that had been in place for TV writers since the days of “I Love Lucy” started to change more than two decades ago, when cable outlets put out 13-episode seasons of shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and, later, AMC’s “Mad Men.”
Streaming platforms have revised that model further: eight-episode seasons of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian”; six-episode seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag”; three- and six-episode batches of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” Cable has replied in kind, offering fewer than 12-episode runs of shows like “Atlanta” on FX and “Silicon Valley” on HBO.
“I think they’re experimenting with the shortest product they can still call a TV series,” said Steve Conrad, the president of Elephant Pictures, a production company in Chicago. “I couldn’t keep this company together if it was fewer than eight, and it’s coming.”
In addition to shortening season lengths, the streaming platforms have ignored the school-year-style calendar of television’s network days, with its premieres in the weeks after Labor Day and finales late in the spring. Netflix has served up new seasons of its most-watched program, “Stranger Things,” in July. Apple TV Plus unveiled one of its most-hyped shows, “Little America,” in the middle of January.
The rise of streaming has fattened the wallets of superstar writer-producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, while also giving chances to unproven writers. But the medium’s shorter seasons and unpredictable cadences have made it harder for writers in Hollywood’s middle class to plot out a year’s work in a way that doesn’t leave them nervous when mortgage payments are due.
Complicating the issue is that streaming platforms have been known to take more time to make an episode than their network and cable counterparts. For many writers, that meant less money for more hours, and they complained to their union representatives.
“Five years ago, it grew from an isolated problem to a dominant problem,” said Chuck Slocum, the assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. “We had half of our members wake up and realize one day that they’re making half the money that they were making.”
That change kicked in too late to help Lila Byock, a writer whose credits include HBO’s “The Leftovers” and Hulu’s “Castle Rock.” She said she was hired on a scripted series that she figured would last 10 months. Instead, it took nearly 18 months, which caused her to pass on other writing jobs.
“It gets tricky,” Ms. Byock said. “That wasn’t what I had budgeted for two years of my life.”
On the flip side, streaming seasons that require a short time commitment — say, eight months — can also wreak havoc on a writer’s schedule. “You’re not being paid by the studio for five months of the year, but that’s not enough time to take on another show,” said Mr. Conrad, of Elephant Pictures.
The old TV calendar is not quite dead. Major producers of network shows, like Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre, still must come up with at least 22 episodes per season of shows like NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and CBS’s “Young Sheldon.” But with new streaming platforms like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and HBO Max set to start in the spring, the lives of many TV writers are likely to get more chaotic.
“I have friends working in network television and it’s like they’re on a different planet,” said Harley Peyton, a writer and co-executive producer of “Project Blue Book,” a History Channel series with 10 episodes a season.
He described staff positions on network shows as “the last full-time jobs in this business,” adding that “those jobs are extraordinarily difficult to get.”
The 10 established Hollywood writers who discussed the changes in the industry with The New York Times were careful to point out that they were still able to make good money, even amid the digital disruption of their industry. And yet, they said, it is common for veteran writers these days to be paid as if they were rookies.
Jonathan Shikora, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents actors and writers, suggested that longtime TV writers were now underpaid. “Should I be getting the same as some new writer whose script I’m rewriting because their work is so green and new and I’m teaching that person?” he asked.
The new economy has some writers thinking twice about moving up the ranks to the position of executive producer. “What I’m starting to see is a lot of friends being like, ‘Why would I ever want to be a showrunner?’” Ms. Byock said, referring to the hands-on executive producer in charge of the writers’ room. “If you’re making the same amount you could be making doing a much less stressful job, why wouldn’t you just do that?”
Rob Long, once a writer and an executive producer of the long-running NBC sitcom “Cheers,” said he had tried to make allowances for the changes when he was in charge of “Sullivan & Son,” a TBS sitcom.
That show had 10 episodes in its first two seasons and 13 in its third, a significant change from the 28-episode final season of “Cheers.” That was fine with the financially secure Mr. Long, who said, “I got to be honest, I thought it was fantastic.” The difficulty came when he was hiring staff writers.
“I was making deals with younger writers just starting out,” he said, “and I was doing the math.”
It took eight weeks to write the scripts and prepare for shooting. An additional 15 weeks brought the staff to the end of the production. The schedule meant that “Sullivan & Son” would eat up nearly six months of staff writers’ time.
Under the terms of their contracts, they had to give priority to “Sullivan & Son,” meaning that, if the show got renewed, they were obligated to go back to it even if they were working on another project.
“It was a de facto way of locking you up,” Mr. Long said.
So he came up with an informal solution that he has used on other shows since then.
“We make a private, handshake deal with our writers,” he said. “We tell them that if you get on another project, or you sell a pilot or something else happens, I will let you out of your contract,” he said.
In other words, Mr. Long added, “I promise to fire the writer.”
Intuit Is Expected to Buy Credit Karma in $7 Billion Deal
Intuit, the home of TurboTax and Mint, is nearing a deal to buy Credit Karma, a start-up that grew to fame by offering consumers free access to their credit scores, for about $7 billion in cash and stock, two people briefed on the matter said on Sunday.
The deal, which could be announced as soon as Monday, points to the value of the financial data of ordinary Americans. Credit Karma grew to be worth billions of dollars by selling credit card offers to its customers after building their credit profiles.
Intuit has long helped businesses and consumers manage their financial data, but it has often been slow in adapting to a new era in which that data is profitably used to attract advertisers.
Credit Karma has been at the leading edge of a large group of start-ups in the financial technology sector over the last decade. It says its customers include a third of all Americans who have a credit profile.
The company, which has over 1,100 employees and is based in San Francisco, had been expected to pursue an initial public offering. But after the rocky I.P.O. of Uber and the failure of WeWork’s planned offering, some companies have instead pursued the surer path of a sale rather than face potentially skeptical investors.
Last month, another successful fintech start-up, Plaid, sold itself to Visa for $5.3 billion rather than stage an I.P.O. Plaid’s business is also focused on consumer data, serving as the middlemen between the big financial firms that have that data and the start-ups that need it.
The deal negotiations were earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Credit Karma was started in 2007 by Kenneth Lin, the current chief executive, and two co-founders, after Mr. Lin had trouble acquiring his own credit score. Until about a decade ago, consumers generally had to buy a credit score directly from the three major credit bureaus. Otherwise, the most likely opportunity for individuals to get a sense of their creditworthiness came just as they were applying for a loan — when it was too late to do anything to improve their lot.
Signing up for the site became a rite of passage for Americans looking to get their credit score in shape to apply for a mortgage. In addition to providing credit scores from TransUnion and Equifax, Credit Karma offers advice on how the scores could be improved by doing things like lowering credit card balances.
The company made its money by offering its customers new credit cards and online loans, based on their credit scores. When customers accepted the offers, Credit Karma would receive payments of a few hundred dollars, though it closely guarded the details of these deals.
Over time, though, Credit Karma’s success invited imitators, and today most digital financial firms offer their customers free credit scores.
Credit Karma has branched out by offering other services that give it access to even more financial data. Its biggest recent product introduction was a free tax return offering that put it into direct competition with Intuit’s TurboTax.
(The Wirecutter, which The New York Times owns, also aims to earn money via affiliate relationships with lenders.)
Intuit’s business has long been based on charging businesses and customers for its software offerings, like QuickBooks and TurboTax. But the company, which is valued at more than $77 billion, has been trying to shift to the new world in which software is free and paid for by deals for consumer data.
TurboTax now offers a free version of its tax-filing service. And Mint allows customers to create free budgets, with the service paid for by credit card ads, much as Credit Karma does.
There is a potentially significant business opportunity for Intuit if it completes a deal. For example, Intuit could try to match all the tax data its TurboTax customers provide with the credit-scoring data that Credit Karma holds.
That could let Intuit serve up better customer prospects to credit card issuers — and eventually let Intuit charge lenders more for access to its hoard of data.
Sheel Mohnot, a venture capitalist who focuses on fintech start-ups, suggested that the combined company could become a sort of Facebook for financial services.
“They would have all of this rich information, and they would basically be an ad network,” he said. “You’re almost forced to advertise with them.”
Ron Lieber contributed reporting.
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