New normal for markets is optimistic uncertainty: YPO survey

The second quarter YPO Global Pulse survey paints an inconsistent portrait of the global economy—relatively robust expansion in the U.S., offset by a slight decline in confidence and lingering uncertainty.

From employment to housing to consumer confidence, the data delivers a complex mosaic. Yet the data itself makes clear that CEOs remain optimistic, as the Global Pulse Index remains less than four points off its record level achieved a year ago. Despite Greece's headline-grabbing challenges and seven years of systemic economic crises, in the EU, YPO leaders remain more optimistic than their global counterparts. And despite the well-chronicled meltdown of the Chinese stock market, in Asia the Global Pulse Index decreased only slightly.

The sustained drop in oil prices is perhaps the most prominent example of the good news–bad news dynamic. The negative effects are well chronicled: steep job cuts in the energy industry and reduced capital spending that has raised the specter of a 1980s era oil glut. Moreover, the Global Pulse survey makes clear that the recent nuclear power agreement led by the U.S. between Iran and six other nations will likely cause oil prices to retest previous low levels.

The truth, however, is that we are nowhere near a pervasively negative glut. But it is also true that the benefits of lower energy prices have proved quite elusive. Both the data and anecdotal evidence suggest that may be changing and that the consumer may finally awaken to the benefits of fewer dollars allocated to the pump and more in their pockets.

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First, it is important to recall that consumer purchases of goods have risen from about 19 percent of GDP in the early 1990s to more than 23 percent today. So when disposable personal income (DPI) increases $65.5 billion, or 0.5 percent, in May, there can be a tangible (and beneficial) economic impact.

The return of purchasing power

We are seeing nascent signs of this strength in retail/consumer-focused investments, which report early signs of increased discretionary spending. Some industrial investments are also benefiting from lower energy prices, as the cost of raw materials has declined in lock step with oil prices. If the experts are right that the oil patch layoffs have reached their peak (initial jobless claims in shale states have declined after a significant spike during the first months of the year), then the overall economy may at least reap measurable rewards from lower energy prices.

Perhaps more than any other sector, the housing market is rife with conflicting data. New U.S. single-family home sales fell in June to their lowest level in seven months, a sign of macro weakness. In Miami the median time on market for homes was 75 days in June, appreciably slower than hotter markets like Denver, where the average time on market in June was six days. Dallas currently leads the country in home-price gains and median home sales prices. The cascade effect in Dallas is real: Builders rush to boost the pace of construction, encounter an inadequate supply of skilled workers (unemployment in the construction industry fell in June to the lowest level since 2001), which in turn leads to wage strength for the approximately 5.5 million Americans employed by the construction industry.

"Those seeking clarity in the months ahead may be disappointed. If this is the 'new normal' we've heard so much about, then the ability of CEOs to adapt and thrive provides reason for optimism in the months ahead." -Sunny Vanderbeck, managing partner at Satori Capital and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

Overseas, China continues to play an outsized and increasingly prominent role on the global economic stage, even as it continues aggressive efforts to re-orient its economy from one based on the manufacturing sector to a consumer-driven model. As the Global Pulse survey makes clear, this transition has not been painless and has resulted in some diminution of overall confidence. China's GDP growth rate has slowed from a double-digit pace of about 10 percent in the last decade to 7.5 percent from 2012-2014. Forecasts predict GDP in China may further slow, to an estimated 6.7 percent in 2015. Certainly, the meltdown in the Chinese stock market was another potent negative, albeit a superficial one driven by the clumsy introduction of margin borrowing to the Chinese investing public.

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But the unlocked potential of the Chinese consumer market is, in a word, gargantuan. The central challenge is that China's 1.3 billion consumers are not spending enough—yet. In the past couple of weeks alone, we've seen an array of consumer-oriented companies aggressively move into the Chinese market.

Carnival Cruise Lines recently announced that it will add two ships to its China fleet in 2016, bringing its Chinese total to six ships. In making the announcement, Carnival cited "double-digit annual returns" and an expectation that China will eventually become the largest cruise market in the world. Unilever is also illustrative, as it recently expanded its offerings in China through a newly formed partnership with e-commerce operator Alibaba. And, of course, the ubiquitous Apple story is increasingly China-focused, as the company recently reported that Greater China region sales more than doubled to $13 billion. The notion here is that Chinese consumers will spend more (and more consistently) on a diverse array of appealing consumer options, hastening the transition to a consumer-focused economy.

Those seeking clarity in the months ahead may be disappointed. If this is the "new normal" we've heard so much about, then the ability of CEOs to adapt and thrive provides reason for optimism in the months ahead.

By Sunny Vanderbeck, managing partner at Satori Capital and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

About YPO

CNBC and YPO (Young Presidents' Organization) have formed an exclusive editorial partnership consisting of regional Chief Executive Networks in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These Chief Executive Networks are made up of a sample of YPO's unrivaled global network of 23,000 top executives from 130 countries. Altogether, YPO member-run companies employ more than 15 million people around the world and generate $6 trillion in annual revenues. The opinions of Chief Executive Network members are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of YPO as a whole or CNBC.