The macroeconomy is the environment in which all firms operate. The importance of the macroeconomy in determining investment performance is illustrated in Figure 17.2, which compares the level of the S&P 500 stock price index to forecasts of earnings per share of the S&P 500 companies. The graph shows that stock prices tend to rise along with earnings. While the exact ratio of stock price to earnings varies with factors such as interest rates, risk, inflation rates, and other variables, the graph does illustrate that as a general rule the ratio has tended to be in the range of 10 to 20. Given "normal" price-earnings ratios, we would expect the S&P 500 index to fall within these boundaries. Although the earnings-multiplier rule clearly is not perfect—note the dramatic increase in the price-earnings multiple in recent years—it also seems clear that the level of the broad market and aggregate earnings do trend together. Thus the first step in forecasting the performance of the broad market is to assess the status of the economy as a whole.
The ability to forecast the macroeconomy can translate into spectacular investment performance. But it is not enough to forecast the macroeconomy well. You must forecast it better than your competitors to earn abnormal profits.
In this section, we will review some of the key economic statistics used to describe the state of the macroeconomy. Some of these key variables are:
Gross Domestic Product. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is the measure of the economy's total production of goods and services. Rapidly growing GDP indicates an expanding economy with ample opportunity for a firm to increase sales. Another popular measure of the economy's output is industrial production. This statistic provides a measure of economic activity more narrowly focused on the manufacturing side of the economy.
Employment. The unemployment rate is the percentage of the total labor force (i.e., those who are either working or actively seeking employment) yet to find work. The unemployment rate measures the extent to which the economy is operating at full capacity. The unemployment rate is a factor related to workers only, but further insight into the strength of the economy can be gleaned from the unemployment rate for other factors of production. Analysts also look at the factory capacity utilization rate, which is the ratio of actual output from factories to potential output.
Inflation. Inflation is the rate at which the general level of prices is rising. High rates of inflation often are associated with "overheated" economies, that is, economies where the demand for goods and services is outstripping productive capacity, which leads to upward pressure on prices. Most governments walk a fine line in their economic policies. They hope to stimulate their economies enough to maintain nearly full employment, but not so much as to bring on inflationary pressures. The perceived trade-off between inflation and unemployment is at the heart of many macroeconomic policy disputes. There is considerable room for disagreement as to the relative costs of these policies as well as the economy's relative vulnerability to these pressures at any particular time. Interest Rates. High interest rates reduce the present value of future cash flows, thereby reducing the attractiveness of investment opportunities. For this reason, real interest rates are key determinants of business investment expenditures. Demand for housing and high-priced consumer durables such as automobiles, which are commonly financed, also is highly sensitive to interest rates because interest rates affect interest payments. (In Chapter 5, Section 5.1, we examined the determinants of interest rates.) Budget Deficit. The budget deficit of the federal government is the difference between government spending and revenues. Any budgetary shortfall must be offset by government borrowing. Large amounts of government borrowing can force up interest rates by increasing the total demand for credit in the economy. Economists generally believe excessive government borrowing will "crowd out" private borrowing and investing by forcing up interest rates and choking off business investment. Sentiment. Consumers' and producers' optimism or pessimism concerning the economy is an important determinant of economic performance. If consumers have confidence in their future income levels, for example, they will be more willing to spend on big-ticket items. Similarly, businesses will increase production and inventory levels if they anticipate higher demand for their products. In this way, beliefs influence how much consumption and investment will be pursued and affect the aggregate demand for goods and services.
CONCEPT CHECK ^ QUESTION 1
Consider an economy where the dominant industry is automobile production for domestic consumption as well as export. Now suppose the auto market is hurt by an increase in the length of time people use their cars before replacing them. Describe the probable effects of this change on (a) GDP, (b) unemployment, (c) the government budget deficit, and (d) interest rates.
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