US economy

Paul Krugman has written two interesting comments (here and here) on my recent “Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS” blog. Paul says that the Bank for International Settlements should not be labelled “Wicksellian”, and then asks a typically insightful question: what constitutes “artificially” high asset prices? Some of the discussion below on this point may seem a bit arcane, but in fact it could prove highly relevant for investors.

The crux of the matter is Knut Wicksell’s definition of the (unobservable) natural rate of interest, and its difference from the actual interest rate, as set by the central banks [1]. Krugman says that the Wicksellian or natural interest rate is that which would produce equilibrium between savings and capital investment in the real economy (“full employment”), and therefore leads to stable inflation. If the central banks set the actual rate below the natural rate, inflation will rise, and vice versa.

Since US inflation has generally been stable or falling for years, Krugman infers that the Federal Reserve must have been setting the actual interest rate at about the right level, or even too high (because of the zero lower bound). The further implication is that if current low interest rates are justified, so too are the high asset prices that they have triggered. In that sense, they are not “artificial” [2]. Read more

The Federal Reserve told us in December last year that it would maintain its asset purchases until the outlook for the US labour market had improved substantially. Does Tuesday’s rather anaemic jobs data release meet this criterion any more than it did last month, when the Fed decided not to taper its asset purchases? Not really.

The underlying pace of job gains is certainly not rising, and may even have fallen slightly. But the unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 per cent, and the pace of decline suggests that the 6.5 per cent threshold for considering interest rate rises could be reached in mid-2014, ie before the balance sheet tapering has ended! This gives Janet Yellen, the incoming Fed chairman, an early problem: she will surely have to reduce that 6.5 per cent threshold soon.

In this blog, we use some statistical tools which have been developed by the regional districts of the Fed to frame a judgment about the underlying state of the labour market, updated to include this week’s new information [1]. Read more

The US official statisticians have today issued revised statistics for GDP dating all the way back to 1929. It may be alarming for investors and policy makers to hear that our understanding of economic “truth” needs to be amended for the last 84 years, but the changes have not in fact made much fundamental difference to the debates which matter for the economy today.

In particular, there has been very little change in the Fed’s likely view of the amount of slack which remains in the economy, though the latest version of growth in the last few quarters, including the publication of data for 2013 Q2 for the first time, may persuade them that economic momentum is a little firmer than previously believed.

The most dramatic-sounding news in today’s release is that the level of nominal GDP has been revised up by 3.4 per cent in 2013 Q4. This follows a number of methodological changes, the most important of which is to treat R&D spending as a positive contributor to investment and GDP, rather than as an input to the production process. But since this change impacts GDP levels for decades in the past, it does not make much difference to our understanding of the economy’s capacity to grow in the immediate future. It simply involves viewing the same objective truth through a different coloured lens. For most practical purposes, this change can be ignored.

There are, however, three areas where the revisions could be significant: Read more

The volatility in financial markets since Mr Bernanke gave evidence to Congress yesterday is a not-so-gentle reminder of what might happen when the Fed eventually begins to withdraw monetary accommodation. The Chairman’s warning that the FOMC might reduce the pace of its asset purchases “in the next few meetings” has clearly spooked the markets, especially those (like Japanese equities) where bullish positions had become very crowded.

The Fed’s main message at present is that it will “increase or reduce the pace of its asset purchases…as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes”. This seems deliberately designed to inject some uncertainty into market psychology, and thereby prevent an excessive risk taking. Mr Bernanke said that he takes the risk to financial stability “very seriously”.

But the overall tone of the Chairman’s written evidence yesterday strongly suggested that the Fed is still a long way from contemplating any significant change in monetary policy. After all, tapering QE would only imply that the pace at which policy is being eased is being reduced. An outright tightening of policy still seems to be several years away. Read more

The FOMC will meet on Wednesday with the markets feeling confident that there will be no change in monetary policy. This means that the $85bn per month rate of balance sheet expansion will probably remain in place. But recently chairman Ben Bernanke has conceded, rather reluctantly, that the Fed’s exit strategy from quantitative easing will soon need to be reconsidered by the committee, and the debate could start at this month’s meeting. In any event, with economists now upgrading their forecasts for US GDP for the first time in quite a while, the markets are increasingly focused on whether the exit can be handled successfully.

The first question is whether the exit will be gradual or abrupt. The chairman’s personal preference is very well known: it should be gradual, and extremely well flagged in advance. But Mr Bernanke might not be in office after next January, and there are others on the FOMC who could have different ideas. Furthermore, economic and market circumstances could change. In 1994, GDP growth and inflation both rose markedly, and the Fed slammed on the brakes without any warning. The resulting 3 per cent rise in the Fed funds rate delivered a major shock to the financial system. Read more

The decline of 0.1 per cent in US real GDP in 2012 Q4 (at a seasonally adjusted annualised rate) is a definite negative surprise for financial market sentiment, which has become very complacent about the ability of the US economy to withstand the fiscal tightening due to hit the economy.

Fortunately, the underlying picture for final domestic demand is reassuring, which is why the markets have taken these figures in their stride. Today’s figures are unlikely to signal a serious downturn.

But the US economy almost never posts a negative quarter in the middle of a robust upswing, so the figures should give us some pause for thought. Furthermore, the weakness of exports, which is more than a one quarter phenomenon, shows that the global economy had become dangerously dependent on the strength of the US consumer towards the end of last year. Read more

The disappointing performance of UK GDP in the past couple of years has become a matter of international interest. Many economists, unsurprisingly, have concluded that the UK government has pursued totally the wrong economic strategy, especially with regard to the speed of fiscal consolidation. The adverse comparison of UK performance with the US, a country with similar exposure to housing, financial services and the bursting of the credit bubble, but with less fiscal tightening since 2010, has been widely emphasised. A consensus has developed that the fiscal multiplier has proven to be much higher than was expected in 2010, and many economists have concluded that fiscal consolidation in the developed economies should be reversed or slowed down. Read more

As Barack Obama is re-elected, he faces political wrangling over the US fiscal cliff. Image by Getty

The re-election of President Obama last Tuesday has triggered a fairly sharp fall in US equity prices, along with a decline in bond yields. Although I argued in this blog last weekend that bonds would prefer an Obama win, while equities would prefer a Romney victory, the extent of the decline in equities in mid week came as a surprise. To some extent, the market was reacting to prospective increases in capital gains taxes, and to tighter regulation of the financial sector, in the president’s second term. But undoubtedly the main factor was uncertainty about the fiscal cliff.

Most investors are assuming that Washington will agree to postpone most of the fiscal tightening which is implied by the “cliff”, but only after prolonged negotiations that could continue past the initial deadline at the year end, when the lame duck Congress departs from the Hill, and which might even be extended past the president’s inauguration on January 21. Read more

The two candidates in the American Presidential election are ideologically as far apart as any I can remember since Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. In fact, it is hard to imagine the US political system throwing up a greater divide, unless the Republicans were to choose a Tea Party candidate. This gap is producing exceptionally strong personal sentiments from voters on both sides of the fence as the election approaches.

Yet the financial markets seem to be completely unfazed by the decision which the American electorate will make on Tuesday. Asset prices are acting as if they do not care very much who wins. Does this attitude make sense, and will it survive the election? Read more

The looming fiscal cliff in the US has now replaced the actions of the Fed and the ECB as the major macro talking point in the financial markets. Although most investors expect that the American political system will find a way out of the large fiscal tightening which is currently scheduled to take place in 2013, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how and when this will be accomplished. In the meantime, concerns about the fiscal cliff have now clearly started to damage capital goods orders in the business sector, which last week dropped in a manner which is normally seen only in recessions.

The US economy remains fragile, and a large downward shock to capital spending, which now seems inevitable in the final quarter of the year, is certainly not what the doctor ordered. It may well lead to a further slowdown in GDP growth in Q4, from the already anaemic 1.8-2.0 per cent rate which seems likely for Q3. However, unless policy makers in Washington prove unable to break free of political gridlock after the elections on 6 November, it still seems improbable that the economy will slide into recession early next year. Read more