Political Calculations
Unexpectedly Intriguing!
April 30, 2018

The S&P 500 closed the third week of April 2018 at 2,670.14. If you closed your eyes at that time, and didn't open them again until after the market closed at the end of the fourth week of April 2018, you would barely notice anything changed, with the S&P 500 having hardly moved to close the week at 2,669.91, a change of just 0.23 points.

Alternative Futures - S&P 500 - 2018Q1 - Standard Model - Snapshot on 27 April 2018

Overall, investors appear to be about equally splitting their forward attention between the current quarter of 2018-Q2 and the more distant future quarter of 2019-Q1. Which is to say that the last week was not much different from the week that preceded it.

The lack of market movement during Week 4 of April 2018 coincided with a week in which there was very little in the way of market-moving news. Here are the more notable headlines from the week.

Monday, 23 April 2018
Tuesday, 24 April 2018
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
Thursday, 26 April 2018
Friday, 27 April 2018

If you're looking to consider additional events of potential significance, Barry Ritholtz tallied up the positives and negatives for the U.S. economy and markets in the fourth and final week of April 2018.

On a final note, it is only a matter of time before investors might shift their forward-looking attention more fully to a particular point of time in the future. If you're looking to identify your next investing opportunity, all you need to do is to anticipate when investors might shift their attention and to identify which particular point of time in the future they might shift their focus toward.

How good of an investment opportunity it might be will then hinge on what expectations investors have for changes in the growth rate of dividends are at that point of time. Easy, right?

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April 27, 2018

Sometimes, we here at the Inventions in Everything team are surprised by what's lurking behind the title of a patent. Usually, the titles given to U.S. utility patents are very, shall we say, utilitarian, where they are very technically describing exactly what they are. So much so that when we first came across inventor Rachel Lorraine Herrera's 2017 patent for a "Cat eye makeup applicator", our first thought was that the invention would be a device for applying makeup to the eyes of cats.

Oh, how wrong we were! Instead, the invention is a device that humans can use to apply eyeliner makeup on the skin adjacent to their eyes in a way that can reliably and repeatably achieve a desired and popular pattern: cat eyes!

Herrera describes the problem her invention addresses in the background section of U.S. Patent 9,635,924 (emphasis ours):

When applied above the eyes, eyeliner is applied to the inside and/or outside of the user's upper eyelids near the upper lash. When applied below the eyes, eyeliner is applied to the inside and/or outside of the user's lower eye lids, near the lower lash. When applied around the eyes it usually but not always extends from the inside corner to the outside corner, both above and below the eyes. On occasion, the eyeliner is extended beyond the outside corner of the eyes to form what is sometimes called a "wing" or, more commonly, a "cat eye."

A typical cat eye has a thicker base portion with a tapering extension, or wing, that extends outward at a desired angle and in straight or curved fashion. The overall cat eye can be large, small, curved, natural, or dramatic, to name but a few possible descriptions.

The cat eye style of eye makeup is best described as an extension of the eyeliner on the top of the eye drawn out past the outer corner of the eye to a pointed shape. There is an infinite combination of shape, length, width and angle, all of which are personal preference for the individual. Cat eye makeup has been in fashion throughout the ages, one of the most recognizable and famous examples being Cleopatra. Cat eye makeup can be seen on Hollywood legends like Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch, as well as contemporary singers such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Katy Perry.

If the user wants the eyeliner to include cat eyes, they are traditionally applied in a freehand manner as with the rest of the eyeliner. When doing it by hand, it is difficult to keep both cat eyes identical and get the desired shape. It takes a great deal of skill because the left and right cat eyes must be symmetrical, and because there is a certain point that you need to start applying each cat eye and another point that, as you move, you need to "wing" it while distancing the applicator from the user's face to narrow the stroke. It is especially challenging for somebody that is applying eyeliner around their own eyes.

Making one perfect cat eye, much less two identical and perfectly formed cat eyes, can be challenging for a professional and is even more intimidating and daunting for the average person who is not trained in makeup techniques. It can be challenging to make symmetrical cat eyes because the length of the cat eye tail must be the same on both eyes, the angle of the cat eye must be the same on both eyes, and the varying width of the cat eye must be the same at all points on both eyes. The inventor has many clients that do not even attempt to do their own cat eyes.

There remains a need, therefore, for a cat eye makeup applicator that resolves these difficulties and makes cat eyes accessible for everyone, i.e. for a cat eye makeup applicator that simplifies the application cat eye makeup and makes it uniform and easy for everyone to master.

We've excerpted Figures 2 through 6 of Herrera's patent, which illustrate her invention in use.

U.S. Patent 9,365,924, Figures 2 through 6

But that's not all that Herrera's cat eye makeup applicator can do! The patent goes on to illustrate a number of different eye makeup fashions that individual users of her invention can now reproduce more easily and more reliably without the aid of a professional makeup artist.

U.S. Patent 9,365,924, Figures 22 through 23

And the best part is that no actual cat eyes were harmed to advance the state of the art in makeup application devices!

One thing that we weren't able to determine is whether any cosmetics firm has yet licensed Herrera's invention to bring it to market. We did find some "cat eyeliner" stencils and other applicators that have been produced to create the fashion, but nothing with what appears to be the more generally useful type of applicator that is described by her patent.

Other Stuff We Can't Believe Really Exists

This is the last of the latest series for Inventions in Everything! But don't worry - we'll be returning this summer where we'll be celebrating the issuance of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's 10,000,000th utility patent, along with the other flights of inventive fancy. Until then, here's our most up-to-date archive!


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April 26, 2018

Two months ago, we compared the trajectories of the S&P 500 (Index: INX) and General Electric (NYSE: GE) to the flight paths of starlings as the two were taking diverging flight paths from one another.

Two months later, and the flight paths of the S&P 500 and GE would appear to once again nearly converged. Or rather they almost had, until something happened on Wednesday, 25 April 2018 to send them diverging again!

GE vs the S&P 500: Percentage Change of Stock Prices Since 26 January 2018, Ending on 25 April 2018

As you can see, GE continued on its course of divergence with the S&P 500 through mid-March 2018. Here are the major headlines that coincide with the continuation GE's path of divergence, where speculation set its volatile course in the market:

Alas, that last headline was little more than a speculative hope that didn't pan out, so GE's stock price dropped back down to reach its bottom within a matter of days.

And then, beginning in mid-April 2018, GE took a strong turn toward the better, where the company's stock price moved to converge with the overall S&P 500. Here are the headlines that coincide with GE's period of convergence:

But it seems that fate has other plans for GE's investors, where one action by a credit rating firm sent GE's stock price onto a new path of divergence with the S&P 500.

And that's all it takes to disturb the flight path of an individual starling, sending it onto a very different trajectory than the rest of the flock of starlings that is the U.S. stock market!

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April 25, 2018

The trailing twelve month average of median new home sale prices in the United States reached a new high in March 2018, where preliminary data puts that figure at $326,217.

At the same time, the value of the typical new home sale price in the U.S. is 5.57 times as much as the typical household income, which also represents a new record.

One way to think of that latter figure is that new homes in the U.S. have never been less affordable for the typical American family at any time during the 21st Century than they are right now.

References

Political Calculations. Median Household Income in February 2018. 3 April 2018. Note: We are using a preliminary projection for March 2018.

Sentier Research. Household Income Trends: November 2016. [PDF Document]. . [Note: We have converted all the older inflation-adjusted values presented in this source to be in terms of their original, nominal values (a.k.a. "current U.S. dollars") for use in our charts, which means that we have a true apples-to-apples basis for pairing this data with the median new home sale price data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.]

U.S. Census Bureau. Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in the United States. [Excel Spreadsheet]. Accessed 24 April 2018.

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April 24, 2018

The Mauna Loa Observatory has been collecting atmospheric carbon dioxide data for sixty years. Located in Hawaii, the observatory's remote location with respect to the major population centers of the world make it a relatively good place to measure the concentration of gases and other substances, which have had a lot of time to become well-diffused within the Earth's atmosphere by the time they reach the mid-Pacific Ocean.

We're going to mark the Observatory's sixtieth anniversary of collecting and reporting the concentration of carbon dioxide with a series of charts showing some of the kind of information that can be extracted from the observatory's raw data. First, the following chart shows the measured concentration of CO2 for each month from March 1958 through March 2018.

Parts per Million of Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Atmosphere, March 1958 - March 2018

As you can see, there's a really strong seasonal pattern in the observatory's CO2 concentration measurements, which we've smoothed to show the overall trend over time by calculating the trailing twelve month average for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Let's look a bit closer at that seasonal pattern in the next chart, where we've simply shown the amount of atmospheric CO2 recorded by month, with each line representing a single year. The effect is a bit like looking at tree rings, where you can get a sense of how much CO2 was added into the Earth's atmosphere from one year to the next as you look from the bottom to the top of the chart. The wider the gap, the more CO2 was added to the atmosphere.

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration by Month, March 1958 to March 2018

Most carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere gets there through human activities, but there are also natural elements that can also greatly impact how much CO2 accumulates in the air in a given year. Perhaps the most significant of these are the El Niño and La Niña weather events that occur at irregular intervals, which have a considerable impact on the accumulative concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In the next chart, we've focused again on the annual seasonal pattern for atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements, but this time, we're showing the starting month at October each year, which typically coincides with the lowest annual reading for this atmosphere characteristic. We've also indicated each subsequent month's reading as a percentage of the preceding October's data point, but more significantly, we've color coded the resulting lines to indicate whether the Earth was experiencing an El Niño or La Niña event, and if so, its relative strength via line shading, where darker indicates a stronger event.

Seasonal Variation of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration at Mauna Loa [Indexed to Preceding October's Measurement], March 1958 to March 2018

The cool thing here is that you can see a strong correlation between the El Niño years and years that have higher-than-average increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, while La Niña years coincide with below-average increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

The next chart goes back to the original CO2 level data that we presented in the first chart, but now, indicates the year-over-year change in that data. We've also indicated two years within the last two decades where very strong El Niño events greatly added to the amount of carbon dioxide that was measured in the Earth's atmosphere in the years where the events occurred.

Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 1960 - March 2018

The year over year change in atmospheric CO2 data is still pretty noisy, so we've smoothed that data in the next chart by calculating its twelve month moving average. Only now, we've added additional information to indicate some of the human contribution to Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Or more specifically, we've indicated when human activities (and carbon dioxide output) waned because of economic factors such as recessions, where perhaps the biggest negative event was the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 1960 - March 2018

The two biggest spikes in the data however coincide with the years of 1997 and 2015, which were marked by very strong El Niño events, where that natural phenomenon added billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere in those years.

How different would the data look if we were able to compensate to account for the effects of that natural contribution? The following chart shows our first attempt to quantify what the Earth's atmosphere might have seen if not for those very strong El Niño events.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Excluding Impact of 1997/2015 El Niño Events, January 1960 - March 2018

Because we've now quantified the impact of El Niño and La Niña events on the rate at which atmospheric CO2 levels change, we should be able to better isolate their impacts when they occur, which means that we're now closer to being able to measure the health of the Earth's entire economy using atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration measurements. The next time we visit this data, we'll extend the El Niño filter across the entire data series to find out what we can!

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April 23, 2018

Earnings reporting season for 2018-Q2 is now underway in the U.S. stock market. And where the S&P 500 is concerned, the arrival of earnings season appears to have coincided with a shift in how far investors are looking into to the future, with investors shifting the majority of their forward-looking attention away from the distant future quarter of 2019-Q1 back toward the current quarter of 2018-Q2.

Alternative Futures - S&P 500 - 2018Q1 - Standard Model - Snapshot on 20 April 2018

Or at least, that's what the actual trajectory of the S&P 500 in Week 3 of April 2018 is suggesting with respect to where our dividend futures-based model would set the level of stock prices after factoring in how far ahead in time investors are looking. Overall, it appears that investors are splitting their forward-looking focus between 2018-Q2 and 2019-Q1, with 2018-Q2 being slightly favored through the end of Week 3 of April 2018.

As for the news of the week that was, there was an increase in the amount of noise being generated by the Fed's minions....

Monday, 16 April 2018
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
Wednesday, 18 April 2018
Thursday, 19 April 2018
Friday, 20 April 2018

Elsewhere, Barry Ritholtz found that the number of the week's positives outweighed the negatives for the U.S. economy and markets in the third week of April 2018.

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April 20, 2018

How can you get cars to slow down in areas where there can be a lot of pedestrian traffic?

A depressingly common solution to that problem involves installing the unpopular and costly trappings of the modern surveillance state, where sensor-laden intersection safety systems have been installed to "enhance" pedestrian safety and, more often than not, to enhance the revenue collections of the local jurisdictions that install them at a cost of tens of thousands for each pedestrian walkway where they might place them.

Or worse, by the low-tech solution of installing speed bumps at a cost of several thousand each, which are proving to turn out to not be good for the condition of vehicle suspensions, people's health or even the environment.

What if the same improvements in pedestrian safety can be achieved for just a few hundred dollars for a new and creatively applied coat of paint for the pedestrian walkways? At least, that's the intriguing potential being suggested from the experience of Ísafjörður, Iceland, which used optical illusions painted on the roadway to get local drivers to slow down as they approached pedestrian crossings.

There's nothing wrong with low-tech and low-cost when it's done right!

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April 19, 2018

The U.S. government's 2017 fiscal year officially ended on 30 September 2017. At that time, we knew that the total public debt outstanding of the U.S. government increased by $671.5 billion from the end of the previous fiscal year, rising from $19,573 billion (or $19.6 trillion) to $20,245 billion (or $20.2 trillion) during FY2017.

But what we didn't know was exactly how much the U.S. government owed to many of its major creditors, particularly foreign interests, where we have had to wait for subsequent revisions to find out! A little over six months later, those revisions are now in the rear view mirror, where the following chart shows who the U.S. government's major creditors were at the end of FY 2017:

FY 2017: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. government spent some $665.7 billion more than it collected in taxes during its 2017 fiscal year. The difference between this figure and the $671.5 billion that the total national debt actually rose can be attributed to the government's net borrowing to fund things like Federal Direct Student Loans, which collectively account for nearly $1.1 trillion of the government's $20.2 trillion debt, or 5.4% of the total public debt outstanding.

Put differently, the U.S. national debt would be 5.4% less at roughly $19.1 trillion if not for the federal government's takeover of the student loan industry from the private sector in March 2010. Since that time, approximately $1 of every $10 that the U.S. government has borrowed has been for the purpose of funding its student loan program.

Overall, 69% of the U.S. government's total public debt outstanding is held by U.S. individuals and institutions, while 31% is held by foreign entities. China has resumed its position as the top foreign holder of U.S. government-issued debt, with directly accounting for 6.8% between institutions on the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, taking over from Japan, whose share of U.S. government-issued debt holdings has dropped to 5.4%.

Beyond that, about 2.1% of the U.S. national debt is held by institutions in Belgium and Ireland, largely as a consequence of these nations' roles as international banking centers, where their holdings often represent those of other nations, particularly China in recent years. The United Kingdom, with 1.2% of the U.S. total public debt outstanding, falls into this category as well.

The largest single institution holding U.S. government-issued debt is Social Security's Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which is considered to be an "Intragovernmental" holder of the U.S. national debt, and which holds 13.9% of the nation's total public debt outstanding. The share of the national debt held by Social Security's main trust fund is expected to fall as that government agency cashes out its holdings to pay promised levels of Social Security benefits, where its account is expected to be fully depleted in just 17 years. Under current law, after Social Security's trust fund runs out of money in 2034, all Social Security benefits would be reduced by 23% according to the agency's projections.

The largest single "private" institution that has loaned money to the U.S. government is the U.S. Federal Reserve, which accounts for nearly one out of every eight dollars borrowed by the U.S. government. It lent nearly all of that total since 2008, mainly through the various quantitative easing programs it operated from 2009 through 2015 in its attempt to stimulate the U.S. economy enough to keep it from falling back into recession. In September 2017, the Fed announced that it would begin reducing its holdings of U.S. government-issued debt.

Update 24 July 2018: We made some minor corrections to the chart to reflect revised data. The original version is available here.

Data Sources

U.S. Treasury. The Debt To the Penny and Who Holds It. [Online Application]. 30 September 2017.

Federal Reserve Statistical Release. H.4.1. Factors Affecting Reserve Balances. Release Date: 28 September 2017. [Online Document].

U.S. Treasury. Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities. Accessed 18 April 2018.

U.S. Treasury. Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government for Fiscal Year 2017 Through September 30, 2017. [PDF Document].


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April 18, 2018

The risk of a national recession beginning in the United States anytime in the next twelve months, or specifically between 13 April 2018 and 13 April 2019, has ticked up toward 0.6% from our previous reading of just above 0.5% a month ago.

U.S. Recession Probability Track Starting 2 January 2014, Ending 13 April 2018

As expected, that uptick is primarily the result of the Federal Reserve's most recent quarter-point rate hike, which was announced on 21 March 2018, where the target range for the Federal Funds Rate now stands between 1.50% and 1.75%. At the same time, the U.S. Treasury yield curve has largely remained steady since our last update, where the spread, or difference, between the yields of the constant maturity 10-Year Treasury and the 3-Month Treasury is within 1/100th of a percentage point of what it was a month ago.

The story is a bit different as you move up the Treasury yield curve, where the spread between the 10-Year and the 2-Year Treasuries has narrowed to reach its smallest difference in nearly a decade, which is raising red flags in some quarters on Wall Street. By contrast, our recession probability analysis is based on Jonathan Wright's 2006 paper describing a recession forecasting method using the level of the effective Federal Funds Rate and the spread between the yields of the 10-Year and 3-Month Constant Maturity U.S. Treasuries, which should be less susceptible to false alarms.

Looking forward, if you use the latest data for the treasury yields and the Federal Funds Rate in our recession odds reckoning tool, you'll find that your results will differ from the data we've presented in the chart above. That is because the chart follows Wright's methodology in using the one-quarter average for the yields and rates data used in its calculations, where the tool's results based on the most recently available data can be taken as an indication of the direction that the recession probability track is most likely heading when compared with the information provided by our recession probability track chart.

Doing that exercise today indicates that the recession risk remains very low, but is likely to continue ticking slightly upward, particular since the U.S. Federal Reserve appears set to continue hiking short term interest rates in the U.S. The following data summarizes the probabilities for when and by how much investors expect the Fed will raise its Federal Funds Rate.

Probabilities for Target Federal Funds Rate at Selected Upcoming Fed Meeting Dates (CME FedWatch on 13 April 2018)
FOMC Meeting Date Current
150-175 bps 175-200 bps 200-225 bps 225-250 bps 250-275 bps 275-300 bps
13-Jun-2018 (2018-Q2) 0.0% 99.5% 0.5% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
26-Sep-2018 (2018-Q3) 0.0% 29.6% 66.0% 4.4% 0.0% 0.0%
19-Dec-2018 (2018-Q4) 0.0% 15.8% 47.9% 31.8% 4.4% 0.0%

At present, we see that investors currently expect the Fed to hike the Federal Funds Rate by a quarter-point twice more in 2018, once at its June 2018 meeting and again after its September 2018 meeting. At present, investors do not expect a fourth rate hike in 2018.

Previously on Political Calculations

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April 17, 2018

April 17th is U.S. Income Tax Day in 2018 and what better way could there be to mark the occasion that all Americans dread almost more than any other than to provide another income tax form to fill out?

But don't worry - it won't mean having to pay any more income taxes this year. Instead, our tool below will figure out how much you would have had to pay if you were filing to pay your income taxes for 1913. The year for which the Internal Revenue Service first issued its Form 1040.

We modeled our tool after the first page of the original Form 1040, which back then, consisted of just four pages: the summary sheet modeled below (Page 1), the Gross Income calculation sheet (Page 2), the General Deductions sheet (Page 3) and finally, one page of Instructions (Page 4). Yes, you read that right. Just one page of instructions!

We'll make it just a bit easier still. All you need to do is to enter the indicated data below (shown in boldface type, in the rows with a white background) below with your figures from this year, and we'll take care of the math, where we'll show those results in the rows with a gray background, where you won't have to worry about entering any values. If you are accessing this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click here to access a working version of the tool on our site.

IRS Form 1040, Circa 1913
Return of Net Income Received or Accrued During the Year Ended December 31, 191_
1. Gross Income (see page 2, line 12)
2. General Deductions (see page 3, line 7)
3. Net Income  
Deductions and exemptions allowed in computing income subject to the normal tax of 1 per cent.
4. Dividends and net earnings received or accrued, of corporations, etc., subject to like tax. (See page 2, line 11)
5. Amount of income on which the normal tax has been deducted and withheld at the source. (See page 2, line 9, column A)
6. Specific exemption of $3000 or $4000, as the case may be. (See Instructions 3 and 19)
Total deductions and exemptions (Items 4, 5, and 6)
7. Taxable Income on which the normal tax of 1 per cent is to be calculated. (See Instruction 3)
8. When the net income shown above on line 3 exceeds $20,000, the additional tax thereon must be calculated as per schedule below:
  INCOME TAX
1 per cent on amount over $20,000 and not exceeding $50,000
2 per cent on amount over $50,000 and not exceeding $75,000
3 per cent on amount over $75,000 and not exceeding $100,000
4 per cent on amount over $100,000 and not exceeding $250,000
5 per cent on amount over $250,000 and not exceeding $500,000
6 per cent on amount over $500,000
Total additional or super tax
Total normal tax (1 per cent of amount entered on line 7)
Total tax liability

Excerpts from the Instructions

3. The normal tax of 1 per cent shall be assessed on the total net income less the specific exemption of $3,000 or $4,000 as the case may be. (For the year 1913, the specific exemption allowable is $2,500, or $3,333.33, as the case may be.) If, however, the normal tax has been deducted and withheld on any part of the income at the source, or if any part of the income is received as dividends upon the stock or from the net earnings of any corporation, etc., which is taxable upon its net income, such income shall be deducted from the individual's total net income for the purpose of calculating the amount of income on which the individual is liable for the normal tax of 1 per cent by virtue of this return.

19. An unmarried individual or a married individual not living with wife or husband shall be allowed an exemption of $3,000. When husband and wife live together they shall be allowed jointly a total exemption of only $4,000 on their aggregate income. They may make a joint return, both subscribing thereto, or if they have separate incomes, they may make separate returns; but in no case shall they jointly claim more than $4,000 exemption on their aggregate income.


Since 2018 is a year for tax cuts, you might consider clicking through to our bottom line tool that will estimate how much more of the money you earned in your paycheck that you will be allowed to keep through lower income withholding taxes!




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April 16, 2018

The second week of April 2018 proved to be just another in a series of noisy weeks in 2018 for the U.S. stock market. Geopolitics, trade and good old fashioned political noise filled the week that was for the S&P 500 (Index: INX), where the ultimate outcome for the week was for the index to close at 2,656.30, up by almost exactly 2% over the previous week's closing value of 2,604.47.

Alternative Futures - S&P 500 - 2018Q1 - Standard Model - Snapshot on 13 April 2018

On the whole, aside from the ongoing elevated noise level in the market, the week was unremarkable, as the S&P 500 closed each day within the range that we would expect knowing that investors were focused on the distant future quarter of 2019-Q1.

Speaking of noise, here is the list of news headlines from the second week of trading for April 2018.

Monday, 9 April 2018
Tuesday, 10 April 2018
Wednesday, 11 April 2018
Thursday, 12 April 2018
Friday, 13 April 2018

Writing at The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz identified the positives and negatives for the U.S. economy and markets in Week 2 of April 2018. Noise made the list twice on the negative side of the week's ledger!

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