AWOL

It’s proving hard to keep the market down. Up it goes, despite bullish investor sentiment starting to hiss, scared off – perhaps – by valuations that in some parts leave little scope for anything but A-grade perfection. The economic expansion currently in play, as demonstrated by enormous pent up demand, log-jammed ports, and inflation numbers that get bigger and bigger by the day, is powerful and broad based. And we now hear the Democrats are starting to cluck and coo over the finer details of a stimulus bill to the order of $1.8 trillion. It’s not, reading the headlines about last week’s surge in bank loans and an S&P 500 toasting all-time highs, an economy that appears to obviously need another trillion plus round of stimulus. And as COVID recedes around the world, the data could well continue to go-go-glitter. One of the issues, though, that risks putting some grit into the whole shebang, is labour. As in where is it? Why are there more job openings than there are folk out looking for jobs? There is a sense, then, that the labour market has changed. Fundamentally changed. The pandemic has shifted attitudes towards life, reframed it, offering a reminder perhaps, that family matters more than any meaningless promotion up the flabby corporate ‘org-chart’. Time – as the earnest wellbeing gurus have long implored – is the most precious commodity of all. It can neither be bought, nor sold. Only wasted. The shifting values of work, have not gone unnoticed by the likes of Goldman Sachs where the profit-minded analysts see a ‘perfect storm’ of labour related issues: from generous state and federal benefits to early retirement off the back of surging Fed-fuelled 401(k) accounts. Cutting off the supply of migrant workers has also upended pockets of the economy that rely on it. And when zooming out, there is also a potential geographic mis-match between unemployed workers and available jobs; a problem with no easy fix when gasoline prices are up 60% and the housing market is as hot as a celebrity endorsed SPAC. All told, there are a lot of missing workers out there. Hence the likes of Amazon, Costco, Target and many others, are all raising wages. The hope in the C-suite, is that many of these labour issues are temporary, and they will ease as the pandemic continues to fade but reading fresh news that Los Angeles is out offering a $1000-a-month, no-strings-attached, cash assistance program, those hopes might be misplaced. If labour remains AWOL and wages continue to go up, record corporate margins – and profits – are likely going down. An event that many valuations are not quite ready for.