US economy

The US CPI report for June, published on Friday, was the fourth successive monthly print that surprised on the low side. Initially, these inflation misses were dismissed by the Federal Reserve as idiosyncratic and temporary, but they are now becoming too persistent to ignore. If they are not reversed fairly soon, the FOMC will need to give greater weight to the possibility that inflation may not return to target over the next couple of years.

Janet Yellen appeared to open the door to this possibility for the first time in her evidence to Congress last week. In a distinct change of tone, she specifically mentioned uncertainties about “when and how much inflation will respond to tightening resource utilisation”, thus acknowledging the possibility of alterations in the Phillips Curve.

She also emphasised that monetary policy is not on a preset course, adding that the FOMC will be carefully monitoring whether the recent decline in inflation is reversed in the months ahead. Normally, her guidance on data is more even handed, without specifically highlighting downside inflation risks.

My colleagues at Fulcrum (especially Juan Antolin-Diaz and Alberto Donofrio) have recently estimated some new econometric models [1] to track the course of inflation in the US, and these models identified the importance of the latest inflation surprises fairly early in the process. After the latest CPI data, the models suggest that there is a high and increasing chance that US inflation will fail to return to target within the next 2 years. Read more

In this month’s regular update on global activity data, the Fulcrum nowcasts have continued to report that the world economy is expanding at slightly above trend rates. As we noted last month, there have been some signs of a modest slowdown in the US, but the Eurozone, Japan and the UK have remained fairly robust. China had shown a few signs of slowing in the spring, but the most recent growth estimates have rebounded to the 7 per cent average that has been intact for several previous quarters.

There now seems to be less chance that the global economy will achieve a clear upside break in its growth rate this year, but there are no signs of a significant or broadly-based slowdown either.

As we have noted on many occasions, the global financial markets have been in a regime that has come to be known as “global reflation” since March, 2016. However, some of the elements of that regime, including rising inflation expectations in the bond markets and a firm US dollar, have clearly frayed at the edges, following a decline in the market’s confidence that a sizeable fiscal reflation package will be introduced by the Republican administration in Washington, and the publication of weak inflation reports in the US and the Eurozone.

The current market regime is probably better described as one of “global expansion” rather than “global reflation”. In retrospect, that would have been a more accurate description of the entire market regime that started last year, since this period has always been about rising real output growth, rather than rising core inflation.

The latest monthly nowcasts are presented in detail here. Read more

A few months ago, the Federal Reserve seemed determined, at long last, to normalise monetary policy in the US. In fact, it still seems to be set on that course. The FOMC has indicated that it intends to raise rates in June by a further 0.25 per cent, and they also seem ready to announce a plan to shrink the central bank balance sheet in September.

But there is now a fly in the Fed’s ointment. The last two monthly releases for consumer price inflation have been much weaker than anyone expected. Although the FOMC was fairly dismissive of the first of these announcements – saying in the minutes of its May meeting that it was probably caused by temporary or idiosynchratic factors – it is not yet known whether they have continued to ignore the second set of weak CPI data in April. The two months together have left core CPI inflation 0.4 percentage points lower than expected.

When the PCE deflator is released next Tuesday, it will probably show the 12-month core inflation rate at 1.5 per cent in April, the lowest figure since the end of 2015. The FOMC’s reaction to this incoming news will depend on their reading of the underlying causes of low inflation, which are highly uncertain. But the markets have already decided that they will take the evidence seriously enough to abort their programme of rate rises after the planned June increase. Read more

The global economic recovery that started amid the gloom of the financial crash in March 2009 is about to celebrate its 8th birthday. In the advanced economies (AEs), the GDP growth rate during this recovery has averaged only 1.8 per cent, well below normal, but unemployment has dropped from 8.1 per cent to a still fairly high 6.1 per cent. According to JP Morgan, the volatility of GDP growth has fallen to the lowest levels for four decades since 2014.

This slow but extremely steady period of expansion has of course been accompanied by much lower interest rates, which have proven terrific for asset prices. The index of total equity returns in the AEs has tripled since the bear market ended.

Janet Yellen and other officials at the Federal Reserve have said on many occasions that “recoveries don’t just die of old age”. Unless something goes wrong, the upswing in the cycle will be prone to continue. At present, econometric models that attempt to assess recession risks suggest that these risks are exceptionally low over the next 12 months.

Furthermore, the growth rate in the US and other AEs seems, if anything, to be breaking upwards. This may be because the headwinds that have held growth down for so long – excessive debt, a malfunctioning banking system, extreme risk aversion, low capital investment etc. – may finally be fading away. Perhaps the world economy is at last attaining escape velocity.

However, good times cannot last forever. It is common for euphoria to set in just when the economic and financial cycle is nearing a peak. As in 2001 and 2008, the end could come much sooner than anyone predicts [1]Read more

US monetary policy has now clearly embarked on an important new phase. For a long while, the markets have been extremely reluctant to recognise that the Federal Reserve might actually mean what it says about increasing short term interest rates by 0.25 per cent on three separate occasions this year. Remembering repeated episodes in which the Fed has failed to deliver its threatened tightening in policy since 2013, investors have concluded that dovish surprises from the Fed are endemic.

Last week, however, they woke up to the fact that FOMC really is serious about raising rates in March, and that this may be the first of three or even four rate hikes this year. After a series of hawkish speeches by several FOMC heavyweights, the coup de grâce came on Friday, when Janet Yellen warned that a rate rise in March “would be appropriate” unless economic data surprised in the meantime. She added rather ominously that policy accommodation would be removed more rapidly this year than in 2015 and 2016.

The great unknown is whether this will come as a major shock to the financial markets. It will certainly mean that investors will need to build in a faster path for rate hikes in the near term than anything that has previously been contemplated in this cycle. But the good news is that the final destination for rates does not seem to be changing, at least in the view of the FOMC. The Committee is increasing the speed of travel towards its destination, but is not changing the destination itself.

So what has justified the shift toward more hawkish thinking on the FOMC? And will this upset the equity market, which is still ignoring the prospect of higher rates? Read more

A year ago, Lawrence Summers’ perceptive warnings about the possibility of secular stagnation in the world economy were dominating global markets. China, Japan and the Eurozone were in deflation, and the US was being dragged into the mess by the rising dollar. Global recession risks were elevated, and commodity prices continued to fall. Fixed investment had slumped. Productivity growth and demographic growth looked to be increasingly anemic everywhere.

Estimates of the equilibrium real interest rate in many economies were being marked down. It seemed possible that the world economy would fall into a “Japanese trap”, in which nominal interest rates would be permanently stuck at the zero lower bound, and would therefore not be able to fall enough to stimulate economic activity.

Just when the sky seemed to be at its darkest, the outlook suddenly began to improve. Global reflation replaced secular stagnation as the theme that dominated investor psychology, especially after Donald Trump’s election in November. Why has secular stagnation lost its mass appeal, and has it disappeared forever? Was it all a case of crying wolf? Read more

Investors are an emotional crowd, especially when US equities, measured by either the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the more accurate S&P 500 index, have just hit all-time highs. I am not sure who first remarked that market behaviour is motivated by two competing emotions, fear and greed. But I do know that Albert Einstein claimed that “Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear and greed”.

Some of the macroeconomists that I have learned not to ignore, like Lawrence Summers and Martin Wolf believe that the outlook for the US economy under President Trump is at best uncertain, and that the recent equity market highs are a “sugar rush”. I recognise that some of these critics have major political differences with the new Administration. But many others, like the perceptive and apolitical John Authers, are also very concerned about equity over-valuation.

So, are investors being “stupid”?

One of the advantages of using economic models to analyse the equity market is that the models should be good at avoiding all three of Einstein’s great forces.

That does not make the models the only source of wisdom about future asset returns. Far from it. They are good at avoiding some of the behavioural mistakes that investors are known to commit, such as a tendency to dislike losses about twice as much as they like gains. But human beings may be better at recognising when the investment climate is about to change because of policy upheavals.

In this article, I will try to eliminate emotion by reporting some recent results from the suite of economic and financial models built by Juan Antolin Diaz and his team at Fulcrum. The results are somewhat encouraging: recession risks in the US are low and the over-valuation of equities is less clear cut (on some measures) than is sometimes supposed.

In the short term, however, there are signs that the most active short term traders in the market may be heavily exposed to equities at the present time. This could make the market vulnerable in the short term to policy shocks that cannot be incorporated into the models, such as a major outbreak of trade protectionism. Read more

The financial markets have begun to wake up to the fact that the Republican reforms to US corporate taxation will probably include important new “border adjustments” to the definitions of company revenues and costs. The basic idea is that US should shift to a “territorial” system, with corporations being taxed only on revenues and costs incurred within the US itself, and not on their worldwide aggregates, which is the principle behind the present system. [1]

A border tax was not explicitly part of the Trump platform before the Presidential Election. It was, however, included in the tax plan published last year by Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, and Mr Trump has recently tweeted that companies that do not “make in USA” can expect to “pay big border tax”. That might be compatible with the Ryan plan, though it also might not be.

Although most other countries already operate “territorial” systems, the Republican plan includes other features that would make the new tax regime operate like a tariff on imports into the US, combined with a subsidy on many exports from the US, a combination that would have profound international economic consequences.

This is not just an obscure change to the details of America’s corporate tax code. It would be seen by trading partners as a protectionist measure that could disrupt world trade.

The direct effects of a border tax adjustment to the US corporate tax regime would be likely to raise American inflation, cut imports, boost exports and raise tax revenue, possibly by over $1.2 trillion over a decade. However, it would also raise the dollar’s exchange rate, which could offset or cancel out some of these other effects.

The impact on real GDP and employment would depend on how these effects panned out, and how the Federal Reserve reacted to the increase in inflation. It cannot be assumed that the effects would be beneficial. Recent estimates by Michael Gapen and Rob Martin at Barclays Capital suggest that the first year effects would be to raise US inflation by about 0.5-1 per cent, and to reduce real GDP by 1.0-1.5 per cent.

Given these economic effects, it is very doubtful whether this form of border tax, taken in isolation, would be good for the overall equity market, though other planned reforms to the corporate tax regime (including lower marginal tax rates, and full deduction of capital spending in the first year) certainly would be. Read more

Exactly a year ago this week, the mood in the financial markets started to darken markedly. As 2015 had drawn to a close, financial markets had seemed to have weathered the first increase in US interest rates since 2006 in reasonable shape. The Federal Open Market Committee had telegraphed its step to tighten policy in December 2015 with unparalleled clarity. Forewarned, it seemed, was forearmed for the markets.

Meanwhile, China had just issued some new guidance on its foreign exchange strategy, claiming that it would eschew devaluation and seek a period of stability in the RMB’s effective exchange rate index. This had calmed nerves, which had been elevated since the sudden RMB devaluation against the dollar in August 2015.

A few weeks later, however, this phoney period of calm had been completely shattered. By mid February, global equity markets were down 13 per cent year-to-date, and fears of a sudden devaluation of the RMB were rampant. It seemed that the Fed had tightened monetary policy in the face of a global oil shock that was sucking Europe and China into the same deflationary trap that had plagued Japan for decades. Secular stagnation was on everyone’s lips.

We now know that the state of the global economy was not as bad as it seemed in February, 2016. Nor was the Fed as determined as it seemed to tighten US monetary conditions in the face of global deflation. And China was not set upon a course of disruptive devaluation of the RMB. Following the combination of global monetary policy changes of February/March last year, recovery in the markets and the global economy was surprisingly swift.

A year later, the key question for global markets is whether the Fed and the Chinese currency will once again conspire to cause a collapse in investors’ confidence. There are certainly some similarities with the situation in January 2016. The Fed has, once again, tightened policy, and China is battling a depreciating currency. But there are also some major differences that should protect us this time. Read more

As the global economy enters 2017, economic growth is running at stronger rates than at any time since 2010, according to Fulcrum’s nowcast models. The latest monthly estimates (attached here) show that growth has recovered markedly from the low points reached in March 2016, when fears of global recession were mounting.

Not only were these fears too pessimistic, they were entirely misplaced. Growth rates have recently been running above long-term trend rates, especially in the advanced economies, which have seen a synchronised surge in activity in the final months of 2016. Read more

The global markets remained in reflationary mode for much of last week, a regime that has now persisted for many months. Led by the US, bond yields have been rising, mainly because inflation expectations are on the increase. Risk assets have been performing adequately, with the exception of the emerging markets.

This reflationary regime has been driven by much stronger global economic activity since mid-2016, and latterly by a belief that Donald Trump’s election victory will lead to US fiscal easing, along with the possibility of the “politicisation” of the Federal Reserve, implying overly accommodative monetary policy.

There are various ways in which this regime could end. The world economy could suddenly go back to sleep, as it has on many occasions since 2009. The US fiscal easing could become bogged down in the Washington “swamp”. Or the Fed could become unexpectedly hawkish, stamping on the first signs of inflationary growth in the American economy. This last risk is probably under-estimated, and is worth considering in detail. Read more

The response of the financial markets to the US election result has been almost as contradictory as the rabble rousing campaign of the President-elect himself. Unmitigated gloom in the hours after the Trump victory was swiftly followed by a euphoric atmosphere in US markets.

Investors are apparently assuming that the new administration will usher in a mix of fiscal reflation, prudent monetary policy, deregulation and tax cuts that will prove very good for the American economy. Trade controls are seen as damaging the emerging economies, but not the US. A steeper yield curve is seen as reflecting a “better” mix between fiscal and monetary policy.

With one very graceful acceptance speech, Donald Trump has suddenly morphed into Ronald Reagan in the markets’ consciousness. Read more

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump  © Getty Images

Presidential elections have often marked major changes in American attitudes towards fiscal policy.

The arrival of President Kennedy in 1960 represented the beginning of Keynesian fiscal activism. President Nixon’s election in 1968 marked the high point of inflationary budgetary policy designed to finance the Vietnam War.

President Clinton in 1992 ushered in a period in which the reduction of public debt was paramount. The elections of President Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000, marked eras in which tax cuts took precedence over budget balance, and counter-inflation policy was ceded to the Federal Reserve.

As the 2016 election approaches, investors are wondering whether another major change in the approach to fiscal policy is in the works. Is a lurch towards fiscal stimulus the “next big thing” in Washington? Possibly, but I am not convinced. Read more

Maurice Obstfeld, the Research Director at the IMF, said last week at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Washington that global growth “remains weak”, but is “moving sideways”. That is an accurate description of the current situation compared to previous decades, according to the latest results from the Fulcrum nowcasts of global activity.

However, compared to the more recent past, a better assessment would be “solid at the trend growth rate”. Although that trend growth rate is disappointingly low, it is no longer falling (according to the models), and the actual growth rate is no longer below trend, so the global margin of spare resources in no longer increasing. Read more

This month’s regular update from the Fulcrum nowcast models shows that global economic activity is growing fractionally below its trend rate, and is little changed from last month’s report. Global recession risks have therefore fallen recently to more normal levels, compared to the elevated risks seen in February. However, neither the advanced economies nor the emerging markets appear to be sustaining a break-out to above trend growth.

The overall picture is therefore one of steady but disappointing growth, with little indication of a major cyclical acceleration at present. In particular, growth in the US remains subdued, and seems to be running at or below the 2 per cent threshold apparently required by the Federal Reserve to justify a June/July increase in interest rates. Although the jury is out on this point, Friday’s weak employment data have given extra weight to the subdued nature of our recent US nowcasts.

We also report for the first time forecasts for global GDP growth over the next 12 months derived from the dynamic factor models that are used to produce the nowcasts. These forecasts are a natural extension of the nowcast models. They should be used in conjunction with other forecasting methods to assess the statistical likelihood of activity “surprises” relative to consensus forecasts in the months ahead.

The latest results suggest that US GDP growth in the period ahead may well come in below the latest consensus forecasts.

The full set of the latest global nowcasts is available hereRead more

Janet Yellen in December announcing the Fed's first rate rise since 2008

Janet Yellen in December announcing the Fed's first rate rise since 2008  © Getty Images

This blog has barely commented on the Federal Reserve’s thinking in the past few weeks, which is unusual. It probably indicates that the Fed has temporarily disappeared from the centre of the markets’ focus, as the probability of a June rate hike has receded. Even the earlier hawks among the analyst community have been sharply reducing the number of rate hikes to be expected this year.

The Federal Open Market Committee has not entirely given up on June, as these statements from Dennis Lockhart, the Atlanta Fed president, and John Williams of the San Francisco Fed indicate. But since the latest employment report, which was widely taken to have dovish implications, there has been no attempt among the inner circle surrounding Janet Yellen to prepare the market for a shock.

The most recent evidence for this is the important interview with Bill Dudley, head of the New York Fed, by Binyamin Appelbaum at the New York Times. Tim Duy, a professor at the University of Oregon and close Fed watcher, rightly says this is a “must read”, but it has created remarkably little interest in the markets. Since this is the first detailed piece of analysis from the heart of the FOMC for some time, it is worth taking careful note of the main points that Mr Dudley raises. Read more

Most investors have been able to muster only two cheers for the year that has just ended.

In 2015, the performance of the main asset classes just about managed to maintain the broad pattern that has been seen since the equity bull market started in March 2009 but there are now definite signs of market fatigue. And although some major trends were obvious in retrospect — weak oil prices, falling euro, rising dollar, tumbling emerging currencies – they recorded sharp reversals that many macro investors failed to navigate in real time.

Global equities returned about 2 per cent in local currency terms [1], less than in recent years. In dollar terms, returns were slightly negative and market peaks in May 2015 have not yet been re-attained. A top may be forming, but as yet there is little sign that a major bear market trend has started.

Government bonds returned about 1 per cent, defying widespread predictions of a trend reversal, and yields were almost exactly flat during the year. Commodity prices plummeted by 33 per cent, continuing the crash that started in mid 2014, and they eventually took credit markets down with them. US high yield securities, for example, returned -9 per cent in 2015. Emerging markets (with the perplexing exception of Chinese equities, the best performing of the major markets) were also hit by the commodity melt-down and generally continued to under-perform developed market assets, in equities, credit and currencies.

Overall, then, the magic mix of moderate gross domestic product growth combined with extremely easy monetary conditions has continued to work in the developed markets. However, overall global asset market returns (bonds plus equities in local currencies, equally weighted) were only about 1.5 per cent, suggesting that some of the magic is wearing thin.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that 2016 will, at best, see similarly low asset returns. That, anyway, is overwhelmingly the consensus central view among mainstream forecasters. But as the bull market matures, it seems inevitable that one year soon we will experience a major setback to asset prices. Will 2016 be that year? Read more

This is the latest report in our regular monthly series of “nowcasts” for global activity.

Global economic data published in November have shown a further uptick in worldwide activity growth after the significant dip that was reported after mid-year.

It now appears almost certain that the 2015 Q3 dip in world activity was not the precursor of a slide towards global recession. Instead, it seems to have been another of the minor mid-course corrections that have been a consistent feature of the moderate upswing in global activity that started in 2009.

Although the recent flow of data has therefore been somewhat reassuring about the global cycle, serious problems are still prevalent in the world economy. China has not suffered a hard landing; but severe deflation in the manufacturing sector remains unchecked, and the economy is clearly slowing as rebalancing between old and new sectors takes effect.

Most other emerging economies are now embarking on a major deleveraging cycle, and this may drag on EM growth rates for several more years. Growth in the advanced economies as a whole has been stable at about trend rates throughout 2015; but underlying productivity growth remains extremely weak by past standards. Therefore the advanced economies do not appear sufficiently robust to withstand an intensification of the EM shock, should that occur.

Overall, the global economy continues to grow below trend rates, so at some deep level the deflationary pressures in the system are not abating. However, the specific deflationary impetus from the commodity price collapse is now passing its maximum effect so recorded rates of headline and core inflation are likely to rise significantly in the next few months.

The latest data therefore confirm the conclusion reached in last month’s report: the global economy is suffering from a longstanding malaise but not from a cyclical recession. Full details of this month’s nowcasts and global industrial production data are attached hereRead more

The latest and, so far, the most severe scare about global deflation started with the oil price collapse in mid 2014, and reached its peak with the sharp drop in global industrial production in mid 2015, swiftly followed by the Chinese devaluation episode in August. Fears of an imminent slide towards a global industrial recession haunted the markets, and both expected inflation and bond yields in the advanced economies approached all-time lows.

But, just when everything seemed so bleak, the flow of economic information changed direction. Global industrial production rallied, and China stabilised its currency. On Friday, the US jobs and wages data were much stronger than expected. Inflation data in the advanced economies have passed their low points for this cycle, and the rise in headline 12-month inflation in the next three months could surprise the markets.

This certainly does not mean that the repeated warnings of the inflationistas will suddenly be proved right. It may not even mean that long-run deflationary pressures in the global economy have been fully overcome: global growth rates are still below trend, and spare capacity is rising in the emerging world. But the peak of the latest, commodity-induced deflation scare is in the past. Read more

In this month’s regular report card on global activity growth rates, we conclude that the downward momentum identified by our “nowcasts” a month ago seems to have been arrested during October. The risk of a global recession has therefore declined recently, but growth in the emerging markets remains well below trend, and global spare capacity is continuing to rise.

Furthermore, the growth rate in activity in the US has dropped since mid year, and is now slightly below trend. Other advanced economies, especially the euro area, continue to record reasonably healthy, above trend growth rates, with some signs of a recent acceleration.

Overall, we therefore conclude that the risk of a global hard landing has diminished in the past month. However, while not in recession, the global economy does appear to be in the midst of a growth malaise, in which the “miracle” of the 2000s in the emerging world is unraveling, and productivity growth in the advanced economies has maintained its long term downtrend.

In this month’s report, we will examine the main sources of the global growth malaise in more detail. (Full results of all the latest global nowcasts are attached here. Last month’s report card, with explanations of the regular graphical layout, is attached here.) Read more