Daily Archives: February 27, 2012

Economic cheerleaders on Wall Street and in the White House are taking heart. The US has had three straight months of faster job growth. The number of Americans each week filing new claims for unemployment benefits is down by more than 50,000 since early January. Corporate profits are healthy. The S&P 500 on Friday closed at a post-financial crisis high.

Has the American recovery finally entered the sweet virtuous cycle in which more spending generates more jobs, more jobs make consumers more confident, and the confidence creates more spending? On the surface it would appear so.

American consumers in recent months have let loose their pent-up demand for cars and appliances. Businesses have been replacing low inventories and worn equipment. The richest 10 per cent, owners of approximately 90 per cent of the nation’s financial capital, have felt freer to splurge. Consumer confidence is at a one-year high, according to data released on Friday.

The government on this side of the Atlantic has not succumbed to the lunacy of austerity. Republicans in Congress have just agreed to extend both a payroll tax cut and extra unemployment benefits, and the US Federal Reserve is resolutely keeping interest rates near zero.

Yet the US economy has been down so long that it needs substantial growth to get back on track – far faster than the 2.2 – 2.7 per cent projected by the Federal Reserve for this year (a projection which itself is likely to be far too optimistic).

A strong recovery can’t rely on pent-up demand for replacements or on the spending of the richest 10 per cent. Consumer spending is 70 per cent of the US economy, so a buoyant recovery must involve the vast middle class.

But America’s middle class is still hobbled by net job losses and shrinking wages and benefits. Although the US population is much larger than it was 10 years ago, the total number of jobs today is no more than it was then. A significant portion of the working population has been sidelined – many for good. And the median wage continues to drop, adjusted for inflation. On top of all that, rising gas prices are squeezing home budgets even more.

Yet the biggest continuing problem for most Americans is their homes. Purchases of new homes are down 77 per cent from their 2005 peak. They dropped another 0.9 per cent in January. Home sales overall are still dropping, and prices are still falling – despite already being down by a third from their 2006 peak. January’s average sale price was $154,700, down from $162,210 in December.

Houses are the major assets of the American middle class. Most Americans are therefore far poorer than they were six years ago. Almost one out of three homeowners with a mortgage is now “underwater”, owing more to the banks than their homes are worth on the market.

Optimists point to declining home inventories in relation to sales, but they’re looking at an illusion. Those supposed inventories don’t include about 5m housing units with delinquent mortgages or those in foreclosure, which will soon be added to the pile. Nor do they include approximately 3m housing units that stand vacant – foreclosed upon but not yet listed for sale, or vacant homes that owners have pulled off the market because they can’t get a decent price for them. Vacancies are up 1m from 2006.

What we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in the consciousness of Americans about their homes. Starting at the end of the second world war, houses were seen as good and safe investments because home values continuously rose. In the late 1960s and 1970s, early baby boomers took out the largest mortgages they could afford, and watched their nest eggs grow into ostrich eggs.

Trading up became the norm. Homes morphed into automatic teller machines, as baby boomers used them as collateral for additional loans. By the rip-roaring 2000s, it was not unusual for the middle class to buy second and third homes on speculation. Most assumed their homes would become their retirement savings. When the time came, they’d trade them in for a smaller unit and live off the capital gains.

The plunge in home values has changed all this. Young couples are no longer buying homes; they’re renting because they’re not confident they can get or hold jobs that will reliably allow them to pay a mortgage. Middle-aged couples are underwater or unable to sell their homes at prices that allow them to recover their initial investments. They can’t relocate to find employment. They can’t retire.

The negative wealth effect of home values, combined with declining wages, makes it highly unlikely the US will enjoy a robust recovery any time soon.

The writer is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and was US secretary of labour under President Bill Clinton

Last year, 13 eurozone countries surpassed the deficit to gross domestic product ratio of three per cent. The latest forecasts by the European Commission suggest the region is slipping into a mild recession this year. As a consequence, in the absence of further policy measures, most of these countries risk missing their budgetary targets. This especially applies to Spain, where last year’s deficit was eight per cent of GDP. The Commission expects its output to decline by one per cent this year (not a particularly pessimistic forecast) yet the country is still supposed to reach the three per cent deficit threshold by next year. Many other countries are in the same boat.

The dilemma for the EU – especially for the Commission whose surveillance role is being enhanced – is how to respond to this situation. Should Olli Rehn, the Commission’s vice president, push countries to take further immediate actions? Or should he recognise that these targets are out of reach and put emphasis on efforts rather than outcomes? From a structural point of view, the preferred option is clearly the latter. However, the European fiscal framework has lost a lot of credibility. He may wish to use the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to enforce discipline.

Economic history teaches us that financial crises have long lasting, if not permanent, negative effects . Most European countries have already lost several percentage points of GDP and it seems wise to expect the second recession to do the same. Mr Rehn has good reasons to require action. However, demanding adherence to the 2013 targets has two major drawbacks.

First, immediate austerity measures would aggravate the recession. Recent research suggests that the short-run negative effects of austerity measures tend to be higher than we previously thought. Though most European governments have structural problems with their budgets, that does not call for impairing all automatic stabilisers in a recession year.

A second drawback of imposing immediate action is the form that this would almost certainly take. Closing a gap on short notice is not compatible with smart consolidation. The most effective way to achieve a dramatic result by next year would be to just raise existing taxes – with all the adverse consequences on potential output and no effects on the effectiveness of public spending.

A better path to sustainable public finances is to launch credible reforms today that ensure rebalancing of the government budget tomorrow. A typical example is the raising of the retirement age or reform of social benefits. However, it is hard for financial markets to monitor the implementation of such measures. The Commission is right to ask for them, and it should have an important role in the surveillance of policy actions and the evaluation of their effects.

Mr Rehn’s involvement in the budgetary policies of individual member states is motivated by their effects on other members. Attention has recently been focused on the negative effects of excess borrowing. However, in this era of major private deleveraging, the positives should also be considered.

This means minimum additional austerity over and above what is already planned in countries under direct financial stress and for no additional austerity at all in countries that do not face an immediate threat of losing access to the financial markets. Provided credible structural measures are implemented, this stance would be consistent with the EU treaty and budgetary sustainability. And it would certainly be better for the economy of the eurozone.

This article was co-authored with Coen Teulings, director the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis. Jean Pisani-Ferry is director of Bruegel, the European economic think-tank

The A-List

About this blog Blog guide
Welcome. This blog is available to subscribers only.

The A-List from the Financial Times provides timely, insightful comment on the topics that matter, from globally renowned leaders, policymakers and commentators.

Read the A-List author biographies

Subscribe to the RSS feed



To comment, please register for free with FT.com and read our policy on submitting comments.

All posts are published in UK time.

See the full list of FT blogs.

What we’re writing about

Afghanistan Asia maritime tensions carbon central banks China climate change Crimea emerging markets energy EU European Central Bank George Osborne global economy inflation Japan Pakistan quantitative easing Russia Rwanda security surveillance Syria technology terrorism UK Budget UK economy Ukraine unemployment US US Federal Reserve US jobs Vladimir Putin

Categories

Africa America Asia Britain Business China Davos Europe Finance Foreign Policy Global Economy Latin America Markets Middle East Syria World

Archive

« Jan Mar »February 2012
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
272829