This has been a very noisy few months in terms of the information that investors have to think about. The U.S. elections have been a wild ride. The odds that Britain will leave the European Union have careened up and down in the polls. The recovery in oil prices, the weakness of corporate earnings, swings in economic data, the Zika virus, Islamic State — all have dominated the news cycle at various times.
Deciding what to focus on is a challenge for traders and investors alike. Let’s look at some recent issues:
• Jobs. The addition in May of 38,000 jobs was far below expectations. Let me remind readers that the monthly employment situation report has a margin of error of 100,000 jobs. Then it gets revised, re-benchmarked and re-revised. So we don’t know if this was a one-off or the beginning of a recession. My guess is it was an outlier. No one knows yet.
• Brexit. If the U.K. referendum June 23 on staying in the E.U. were to pass, it would cause some headaches for all involved. However, Britain isn’t part of the currency union that uses the euro, suggesting to many analysts that much of the negative fallout would land on the U.K. itself. For the past few months, the Brexit movement looked like it was going to lose. I am not a currency trader or an investor in U.K. financial companies, so what investors can do with this information is beyond me.
• U.S. elections. The campaign and the outcome will have some impact on both bonds and equities. However, the claim that election uncertainty is a drag on markets has been greatly exaggerated. The next U.S. president will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. My guess is that an election that so many think will be close might end up as an electoral college romp.
• Zika. I don’t want to make light of a serious mosquito-borne illness, but the annual frenzy over the latest global disease outbreak has become an all-too-reliable ritual. This is why we have a National Institutes of Health, among other agencies, to help deal with diseases in developing nations and prevent them from infecting people in the U.S.
• Earnings. Of all the things that are cause for concern, this is my biggest. On the one hand, the energy industry has seen its profits plummet as the price of crude oil fell. When a sector that once made up 11 percent of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has earnings fall almost to zero, it’s going to hurt. But that doesn’t explain the entire slump in earnings. If you are looking for something to be worried about, this seems like the one to watch.
Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management.