Posts Tagged ‘inflation’

Bernanke Defends Fed Policy on Job Growth, Inflation

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Although the economy has improved in the past year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told lawmakers that they still must cut the growing budget deficit.  “We still have a long way to go before the labor market can be said to be operating normally,” Bernanke said in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee.  “Particularly troubling is the unusually high level of long-term unemployment.”

According to Bernanke, the 8.3 percent unemployment rate understates the weakness of the labor market.  He reminded the committee that it is necessary to also consider other measures of the labor market, including underemployment.  Although the jobless rate has fallen five months in a row, it is still higher than the 5.2 to six percent that the Fed believes is consistent with maximum employment.  The percentage of the unemployed who have been jobless for 27 weeks or longer rose to 42.9 percent in January, compared with 42.5 percent in December, according to the Department of Labor.

“Over the past two and a half years, the U.S. economy has been gradually recovering from the recent deep recession,” Bernanke said.  “While conditions have certainly improved over this period, the pace of the recovery has been frustratingly slow, particularly from the perspective of the millions of workers who remain unemployed or underemployed.”

At the same time, Bernanke cautioned the Senators against holding back short-term economic growth by cutting the budget too much in the name of controlling the deficit.

The upbeat jobs data – the private sector added 243,000 jobs in January, sending the unemployment rate down to 8.3 percent – caused some Senators to ask about the Fed’s monetary policy as the economy shows more signs of life.  The Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) recently said that it expected to keep interest rates at historically low levels through late 2014.  Bernanke said the strategy is a reaction to concerns that low interest rates might set off inflation by noting that prices did not rise significantly during 2011.

Rather, Bernanke said that the Fed is consciously taking a “balanced approach” to spur economic growth with low inflation.  Previously, Bernanke told the House Budget Committee that the Fed would not sacrifice its two percent inflation goal to jump start employment.  ‘Over a period of time we want to move inflation always back toward 2 percent,” Bernanke told Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), the committee’s chairman.  “We’re always trying to bring inflation back to the target.”

Bernanke offered a strong defense of the Fed’s inflation goal after Ryan suggested it should tolerate higher inflation to assure maximum employment.  “In looking at the two sides of the mandate, the rate of speed, the aggressiveness, may depend to some extent on the balance between the two objectives,” Bernanke said.  “We are always trying to return both objectives back to their mandate.”  Ryan, who has backed legislation to require the Fed focus exclusively on stable prices, said that he is “greatly concerned to hear the Fed recently announce that it would be willing to accept higher-than-desired inflation in order to focus on the other side of its dual mandate.”

Also during his testimony, Bernanke reiterated a promise to prevent Europe’s financial crisis from harming the American economy. “We are in frequent contact with European authorities, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely and take every available step to protect the U.S. financial system and the economy,” Bernanke told the Senate Budget Committee.

Hungary’s Debt Downgraded to Junk

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Yet another European nation – and one not in the Eurozone – is facing a financial crisis now that Standard & Poor’s (S&P) has downgraded its credit rating to junk status. The nation is Hungary, whose status was changed as a result of concerns about proposed policy changes regarding the country’s central bank.  S&P cut its rating on Hungary’s debt to the non-investment grade of BB+ and warned that there could be additional adjustments.  Its negative outlook on the Hungarian front means there is at least a 33 percent likelihood of another downgrade over the next year if Hungary’s fiscal performance worsens.

The lower rating could mean that Hungary has more difficulty borrowing, and may have to pay higher rates on its debt.  Moody’s Investor Service, a rival credit-ratings agency, had already reduced Hungary’s rating to junk status in late November.  According to S&P, policy changes related to Hungary’s central bank will curtail its independence; these changes by necessity complicate the scene for investors.  They’re likely to negatively impact investment and fiscal planning, which will weigh on Hungary’s medium-term growth prospects.  “The downgrade reflects our opinion that the predictability and credibility of Hungary’s policy framework continues to weaken,” S&P said.

Not surprisingly, the European Central Bank (ECB) is concerned about Hungary’s draft law that it says would undermine the independence of the country’s central bank. The government recently introduced proposals to merge Magyar Nemzeti Bank (MNB) with the Financial Supervisory Authority, name a new president who will outrank the current central bank governor and increase the number of members of the governing council.  All of this would be “to the detriment of central bank independence,” the ECB said.  “In particular, by appointing a new president with authority over the Governor of the MNB, who would become the vice-president of the new institution, the personal independence of the MNB’s Governor would be impaired and Article 14.2 of the Statute of the European System of Central Banks concerning the possible reasons for dismissing the Governor of a national central bank would be breached,” the ECB said.  “The Governing Council of the ECB has requested the Hungarian authorities to bring their consultation practice into line with the requirements of European Union law and to respect the obligation to consult the ECB.  Three major revisions of the central bank law in 18 months are incompatible with the principle of legal certainty.”

The independence of the central banks in European nations is enshrined in European Union treaties. However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to use his two-thirds majority in parliament to push through changes in the make-up of the decision-making entities of the MNB, with whom he has frequently disagreed over policy.

According to Business Week, “Hungary will probably overshoot its budget-deficit target next year, the central bank said.  The shortfall may be 3.7 percent of gross domestic product, compared with the government’s 2.5 percent goal, the Magyar Nemzeti Bank said.  The gap may be reduced to 2.6 percent with the ‘complete cancellation’ of budget reserves and assuming no unexpected spending and no shortfall in revenue in 2012.  A decline in risk premium may allow keeping the benchmark interest rate unchanged at seven percent, the highest in the European Union, or its ‘cautious reduction’, the central bank said, citing the rate-setting Monetary Council.  The rate may have to be ‘permanently’ higher if the pace of disinflation is slower than the bank’s forecast.”

Thanksgiving Dinner to Cost 13 Percent More This Year

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner on average will cost 13 percent more than it did in 2010. The price of the traditional holiday meal for 10 people will average $49.20, an increase from $43.47 in 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).  That’s the biggest increase since 1990, as the cost of sweet potatoes, rolls, stuffing and whipped cream rose in 2011.  The classic Thanksgiving meal totals approximately $5 per person.

Bad weather and soaring commodity prices are two reasons that have caused an increase in food and beverage prices.  On Thanksgiving Day, a 30-ounce can of pumpkin pie mix will cost 16 percent more than it did last year.  A pound of frozen green peas will cost 17 percent more, while the cost of a gallon of milk will climb 13 percent.

The turkey itself will be the biggest item.  A 16-pound turkey is expected to cost approximately $21.57, or 22 percent more than in 2010.  Economists said the leap is a result of strong demand in the U.S. and abroad.  “Retailers are being more aggressive about passing on higher costs for shipping, processing and storing food to consumers,” John Anderson, a senior economist with the group, said.  The report, which the federation says is “an informal gauge of price trends around the nation,” is the latest in a series that date back to 1986.  Back then, Thanksgiving dinner cost $28.74.

“Our informal survey is a good barometer of the rising trend in food prices this year,” Anderson said. “We are starting to see the supply response to higher prices, but there are substantial lags.”

Thanksgiving dinner costs have increased at a faster pace than food inflation; the government forecasts prices will increase 3.5 to 4.5 percent this year, the fastest rate since 2008.  Rising commodity and energy prices boosted the cost of food by 6.3 percent in September compared with the same timeframe of 2010, according to Census Bureau data.  “The era of grocers holding the line on retail-food cost increases is basically over,” Anderson said.  “The worst of the price inflation may be ending, and we should see a moderation in 2012.”

At a time when global food prices tracked by the United Nations fell 9.1 percent from a high point in February, Americans are paying record prices, including on hams, ground beef, bread, flour and cheese.  World food costs are 68 percent higher than five years ago after bad weather the past three years hampered global production gains.  “We are still in a period of accelerating food inflation that may begin to moderate in 2012,” Alexander said. “Consumers are getting a double whammy.  It costs more to get to work, and they have less disposable income to spend on other things after they go to the grocery store.”

A total of 141 volunteers from 35 states participated in this year’s project.  The dinner menu has remained unchanged since 1986 to assure consistent price comparisons.  “A dinner for 10 at under $5 a head is still a bargain,” Anderson said.  “The average American household still spends less on food than any other nation in the world.”

Recent College Grads Can Expect Starting Salaries 10 Percent Below 2000 Levels

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Recent college graduates can expect to earn 10 percent less than they did as long ago as 2000.  In fact, one of the longest-lasting legacies of the great recession may be its negative impact on the lifetime careers of young graduates.  The current high unemployment rate will leave many of them a step behind throughout their careers.  A study conducted by Yale School of Management economist Lisa Kahn determined that workers who graduated from college during the recession of the early 1980s were still in worse shape financially than workers who graduated in better times after approximately 2006.  When young college graduates do get a job, it frequently won’t pay well.  According to Census Bureau statistics, the median annual earnings of a worker 25 to 34 years old with a bachelor’s degree was $40,875 last year, a significant decline from the $45,200 reported in 2000, adjusting for inflation.

Despite the dismal salary news, there is good news in that fact that hiring for 2011 graduates is up 10 percent when compared with last year.  Meanwhile, unemployment rates among those with a degree is less than half the national average.  It’s those with just a high school education whose unemployment rates are above the national average.

The typical wage for recent college graduates has fallen by nearly $1 per hour over the last 10 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  Despite the lack of growth in entry-level wages, a college degree remains a worthy investment.  According to the EPI’s Heidi Shierholz, “After gains in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, hourly wages for young college-educated men in 2000 were $22.75, but that dropped by almost a full dollar to $21.77 by 2010.  For young college-educated women, hourly wages fell from $19.38 to $18.43 over the same period.  Now, with unemployment expected to remain above 8 percent well into 2014, it will likely be many years before young college graduates — or any workers — see substantial wage growth.”

There is some upbeat news for the class of 2011. Students who will graduated this year received job offers with starting salaries averaging $50,034 annually, a 3.5 percent increase over last year, according to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).  Employers said they plan to increase hiring of college graduates by 13.5 percent compared with 2010.  Business majors were the best positioned, with the average starting salary rising nearly two percent to $48,089.  Accounting majors received salary offers of $49,022, up 2.2 percent, while finance majors were offered an average of $50,535, an increase of 1.9 percent.  Starting salaries for business administration/management graduates fell slightly to $44,171, down 2.3 percent.  Engineering graduates — typically one of the highest-paying fields — didn’t see a big change, with the average starting salary down 0.3 percent but still impressive at $59,435.

Certain engineering majors saw noteworthy increases, with electrical engineering majors receiving an average salary offer of $61,690 — up 4.4 percent over 2010.  Mechanical engineering salaries rose 3.8 percent to $60,598, although it didn’t pay as well to graduate with a degree in civil engineering, with starting salaries in that field slipping 7.1 percent to $48,885.  While the association’s survey didn’t break out starting salaries for individual liberal arts majors, offers were up an impressive 9.5 percent to $35,633.  That compares to a steep decline of 11 percent last year.

The financial crisis is forcing Americans to re-think what they want out of a college education. “Students and families are becoming more savvy consumers about how they get their degrees, where they go to school and how they pay for it.  I think that is long overdue,” said Edie Irons, the Institute for College Access and Success’s communications director.  “It used to be that a college degree seemed like a ticket to ride, but there are no guarantees anymore that once you get that degree, you’re going to get a great job and do really well financially.  There’s been research that has shown students graduating in a recession earn lower incomes throughout their lifetimes than those graduating in a boom,” Irons said.  “It is a real concern, and we think graduates need good information about how to manage their debt.”

According to Brandon Lagana, director of admissions at Northern Illinois University, students are being more fluid in their approach to college.  Some chose a more affordable university, others start at a two-year institution then finish at a four-year school, and some wait a few years before starting any schooling.  “We’re certainly seeing students using more options to a degree than they ever did before,” he said.

Read my recent Huffington Post article about college education and debt here.

Spending Rises as Savings Fall

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Are Americans shopping until they drop again? It could be, judging by the latest government report showing that consumer spending rose by a surprisingly vigorous 0.6 percent in September, even as personal incomes barely grew.  Adjusting for inflation, after-tax income declined slightly by 0.1 percent, according to the Department of Commerce.  The bottom line is a sharp drop in the saving rate in September, to just 3.6 percent.  That’s the lowest level since 2007 and a drop from a healthy five to six percent during most of the last two years.

Scott Hoyt, who studies consumer spending for Moody’s Analytics, says it’s possible that the September numbers may have been inflated by spending for repairs and other things after Hurricane Irene.  At the same time, other data suggest that people are spending more because lenders are suddenly more willing to give credit and as households — which had deferred buying new cars and other goods — feel more optimistic about the direction of the economy.  Consumer spending is perceived as a critical economic component,  and is often cited as representing 70 percent of the nation’s GDP.

The improvement in consumer spending helped boost the economy through the 3rd quarter while policymakers ranging from President Barack Obama to the Federal Reserve took additional action to stimulate growth and hiring.  Unless paychecks grow, Americans may not be able to continue their spending sprees.  “Given the state of consumer sentiment and the savings rate, we should see moderate spending, at best, going forward,” said Sean Incremona, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc., who accurately predicted the consumer spending boom.  “The savings rate is just one of those warning signs that says we’re not pulling ourselves out vigorously, so the economy still has a lot of vulnerability.”

Fed policymakers are considering options for additional monetary easing even as the economy improves.  Vice Chairman Janet Yellen said that a 3rd round of significant asset purchases “might become appropriate if evolving economic conditions called for significantly greater monetary accommodation.”

“Consumers today are still facing inflationary pressures on food, high unemployment, minimal job and income growth and waning consumer confidence,” BJ’s Restaurants, Inc., Chief Financial Officer Gregory Levin said after the chain reported a 6.5 percent increase in sales for the 3rd quarter.  “It is difficult to ascertain if the current trends represent the trend we will end up seeing throughout the remainder of this year, or how strong the holiday retail selling season will be.”

“Income growth will have to be watched closely in coming months as the recent trend of spending at the expense of savings is not sustainable,” economists at Nomura Securities wrote.  Inflation rose 0.2 percent in September, based on the latest analysis of the personal consumption expenditure price index.  The PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditures) grew by 2.9 percent over the past year.

“Sluggish growth in U.S. consumer income in September led households to cut back on saving to increase their spending, casting doubts over the durability of the economy’s third-quarter growth spurt,” Reuters wrote.

According to The Hill, “Purchases of new and used cars drove spending.  Clothing sales rose 1.1 percent.  Purchases such as utility payments were up 0.2 percent, as consumers paid to cool their homes during a brutally hot summer.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics, who often discusses the economy, recently said something disturbing and fascinating about the possibility of a double-dip recession.  According to Zandi, it could be the only recession that we will ourselves into.   Zandi was talking about gloomy expectations that make people so nervous that in terms of economics, they freeze.  His remarks are a reminder that while we regularly report economic data – unemployment, cost of living, home prices, trade deficits – there are other measures of our economy that are, by definition, subjective.  Do we feel secure?  Do we have confidence in the future to the point where we’re willing to spend money and take risks?

According to Dennis Jacobe of the Gallup Organization, “We’re a lot less confident than we normally are. Three out of four right now will say the economy is getting worse.  And that’s a number that approximates the numbers of late 2008.  I think the American people don’t see the economy that most of us economists and the public policymakers see.  Americans see high unemployment rates and are concerned about losing their job.  They’re concerned about higher food prices and higher energy prices, even though we say that there’s not much inflation.  They’re worried about the housing market.  And then on top of that, they’re worried about things like politics and the confrontational kind of stalemate in D.C. 

“That certainly had an impact according to our numbers,” according to Jacobe.  And what we see happening over the last several weeks is interesting in the sense that the average American, middle and lower income American, has been fairly pessimistic for quite a while with all these things that have been bothering them.  But what we’ve seen happen recently is that things like the confrontation over the debt ceiling bill and on other kinds of things seem to have troubled upper-income Americans.  Now, they’re also affected by what’s happening on Wall Street and what’s happening internationally with the problems in Europe and those kind of things, but when upper-income people also get very pessimistic, that’s when our numbers get up to three-quarters or 80 percent of Americans being worried. 

“There really isn’t.  And, you know, I think that one of the things that’s happening is that we’re not paying enough attention to consumer psychology as opposed to Wall Street and investor psychology.  People all the time talk about how that affects Wall Street and how when Europe has had financial problems, they thought – people thought back to 2008 and the financial crisis and all those kind of things.  But the average American is affected by the same kind of thing.  They saw tremendous financial shock in 2008 and early 2009.  And they saw that in their lives and in terms of not only credit access, but also in terms of their jobs and their job security.  And I think people forget that when a lot of these things happen, like the budget confrontation, that that brings back memories of those days and those troubles.  And that has a major impact on consumer psychology.  So the statement like Zandi made makes a lot of sense in the sense that consumers actually are impacted today differently than, say, in years past,” Jacobe said.

“The trouble is people are so shell-shocked and haven’t really gotten over the recession,” according to Zandi.  “They’re extraordinarily nervous, and when anything goes off script even a little bit they freeze, and that’s where we are right now and why we are so close to recession.”

In discussing the recent Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States’ credit rating from AAA to AA+, Zandi believes that there is a logical apprehension that a financial market selloff could feed on itself, doing real economic damage if it drags on.  Wary households might respond by cutting back on spending, and anxious businesses would be even more cautious about investing and hiring.  This could cause a double-dip recession, which would only intensify the nation’s fiscal troubles.  Federal Reserve policymakers are certain to take this into account.  S&P might even downgrade other nations’ sovereign debt, since the U.S. government provides vital support to the entire global financial system. This could increase borrowing costs for homebuyers seeking mortgages and businesses that want to expand.  The impact on lending rates would be small, a few basis points at most.  Financial markets should be able to weather the S&P downgrade, with little lasting economic impact.  “Fundamentally the United States does not deserve a downgrade, because policymakers have made significant strides toward fiscal responsibility.  The debt-ceiling deal was a vital step that doesn’t solve the nation’s problems, but it goes more than halfway,” Zandi said.

One idea that Zandi has to stimulate the economy is to take back unspent dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and spend it on projects or on short-term stimuli like food stamps.  This is easier said than done and might create more problems than it fixes.  “It’s meaningful, but it’s not a game-changer,” Zandi said.  “From an economic and political perspective, I’m not sure that would make a lot of sense to do.  A lot of this spending has generated a lot of planning, a lot of environmental designs.  They’re counting on the money. If you’re going to divert it, you’re going to create all kinds of problems for them.”

Stagflation Rears Its Ugly Head

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) climbed by 0.5 percent in July, according to a Labor Department report.  That came after a decrease of 0.2 percent the previous month.  Rising inflation cuts consumers’ buying power.  Average pay, when adjusted for inflation, fell in July and has declined by 1.3 percent in the last year.  Over the last 12 months, prices have gone up 3.6 percent.  Core prices over the last year have risen 1.8 percent — the largest increase since December of 2009. 

“Once again, the consumer was pushed to the wall by rising retail costs,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.  “It’s bad enough that workers are not getting any pay increases but the surge in retail prices is cutting into spendable income.”  Although many economists and the Federal Reserve expect that higher food and energy prices will prove short lived, that offers little good news to Americans who must find the money to pay for food and gas.  “This is not welcome news for Fed officials who are trying to justify QE3,” First Trust analysts said.

The news also raises the specter of stagflation, a circumstance when the inflation rate is high and the economic growth rate is slow.  Writing for CBS Money Watch, Dan Burrows says that “Prices are growing rapidly but the economy is not.  Sound familiar?  It’s called stagflation — something we haven’t had in three decades — and markets are getting more jittery about its possibility with each passing data point.  A stagnant economy plus inflation equals stagflation, and it could actually be worse for American households this time around, should it come to pass.  Yes, inflation rates of three percent to four percent are nothing compared to the double-digit inflation Americans lived with in the 1970s and early 1980s.  But then households were in much better shape back then because they carried much less debt, be it through mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards or student loans.”

The Hill’s Vicki Needham writes that “The energy index has risen 19 percent over the past year.  Overall, food prices increased 0.4 percent in July, with larger increases in dairy and fruit prices.  The cost of meat, coffee and vegetables all increased.  The core index, excluding volatile food and energy, was up 0.2 percent, slightly below the 0.3 percent increase in each of the previous two months.  Prices are up 3.6 percent from a year ago, the same amount as in May and June.  Core prices are 1.8 percent higher than they were a year earlier, the largest increase in two years, with rent and the rising cost of hotels pushing up housing prices by the most in three years.  Although prices are up, the index of core prices, used by the Federal Reserve to gauge inflation, is within the target range of 1.5 and two percent.  Core consumer inflation is expected to remain between 1.5 and 1.8 percent this year, the Fed has said.  The cost of apparel increased sharply last month, as clothing prices were up 1.2 percent, the third consecutive month of increases.  Clothing costs have increased 3.1 percent during the past 12 months, the largest yearly increase since July 1992.”

With an economy sluggish, and many calling a recession inevitable, the latest CPI number fits with recently released Producer Price Indexes (PPI) which showed prices rising throughout different levels of production.  While recessions are usually deflationary, rising measures of inflation have sparked fears of stagflation.

Surprisingly, the Chicago area was relatively immune to July’s inflationary numbers.  Consumer prices in metropolitan Chicago declined 0.4 percent in July from June as energy prices fell, according to the Labor Department.  With the exception of food and energy, prices were also down 0.4 percent.  Compared with last year, prices rose 3.2 percent and there was a 17.8 percent spike in energy costs.  When food and energy are taken out of the equation, prices rose 1.6 percent compared with last year.  Food prices remained the same as June, but rose 3.5 percent from July 2010.  Energy prices declined one percent from June as gasoline prices dropped 4.2 percent.  Gas prices were 37.3 percent higher than in 2010.  The biggest price declines were in education and communication, down 3.8 percent; clothing was down 2.6 percent; and transportation was down 1.7 percent.  Housing costs rose 0.5 percent.

Economy Reaches Stall Speed

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

The American economy expanded at a snail’s pace of just 1.3 percent in the 2nd quarter, according to a report from the Department of Commerce. Growth in the first three months of 2011 was reduced to 0.4 percent from an earlier reading of 1.9 percent.

“Today’s first look at GDP in the 2nd quarter confirms what we already knew:  The economy isn’t growing as fast as it needs to,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.  “Experts have repeatedly warned that if this uncertainty continues, our economy will pay the price.  We can’t afford to return to the same failed policies that brought us here.  We must build on the progress we’ve made over the last two years and reach a balanced compromise that will reduce our debt and at the same time strengthen our job-creating ability and global competitiveness for the future.”

Soaring gas prices and meager income gains caused consumers to limit their spending in the spring.  The abrupt slowdown means the economy in 2011 will likely grow at a slower pace than in 2010.  Additionally, economists don’t expect growth to pick up enough in the 2nd half to cut the unemployment rate, which rose to 9.2 percent In June.  Economists originally thought that a Social Security payroll tax cut would spur adequate growth to reduce the unemployment rate.  Unfortunately, the lion’s share of that money was spent filling up gas tanks as gas prices soared.  In an unfortunate twist, employers pulled back on hiring because Americans spent less.  Thanks in part to high gas prices, consumer spending was virtually flat throughout the spring.  It grew a mere 0.1 percent, after experiencing 2.1 percent growth in the winter.  Spending on long-lasting manufactured goods — primarily autos and appliances — declined 4.4 percent.

Usually reliable government spending fell for the 3rd consecutive quarter.  State and local governments also slashed spending, the seventh time in eight quarters since the recession officially came to an end.  Corporate spending on equipment and software grew 5.7 percent in the 2nd quarter, down from the 1st quarter’s impressive 8.7 percent pace and below 2010’s double-digit gains.  Additionally, American incomes are not growing.  After-tax incomes, adjusted for inflation, rose just 0.7 percent, similar to the 1st quarter and the weakest numbers since the recession ended.

Kathy Bostjancic, director for macroeconomic analysis at the Conference Board, said the poor new data could push the American economy back into recession.  Although she said that the chances of that are still low. “Anemic consumption, still declining state and local government spending, tepid business investment, and soft housing activity all combined to offset some strength in exports,” she said.  “Concerns about the weak labor market and rising food and energy prices continue to weigh on consumer confidence.”  In June, the Federal Reserve cut its estimate of economic growth for the year.  The Fed now thinks that the economy will grow between 2.7 percent and 2.9 percent, down from an April estimate of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent.

The economy is struggling to recover from the recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009, a time when the GDP contracted.  According to a government report, the recession was even worse than originally estimated.  Between the last few months of 2007 and the middle of 2009, the economy declined by 5.1 percent.  That is one percentage point more than previous estimates.

Writing in the Washington Post’s “Political Economy” column, Neil Irwin says that “But even if the number comes in somewhat higher than economists are expecting, it will be no cause for celebration.  The U.S. economy is capable of growing at about 2.5 percent a year over the longer term, as the population increases and workers become more productive.  But when the economy grows at that rate, the labor market can only tread water — accommodating the rise in the labor force, but unable to put the millions of Americans still unemployed back to work.  So, what happens to employment when the nation’s economic growth stays below that 2.5 percent rate, as it has in the 1st half of this year?  The U.S. jobless rate has risen for three months straight.  Among the major culprits in keeping job seekers out of work are the financial struggles faced by state and local governments that are cutting tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in spending each month to balance their budgets.  State and local government cutbacks subtracted 1.2 percentage points from 1st quarter GDP, the Commerce Department has estimated.  Friday’s GDP release shows the amount of drag in the 2nd quarter.  States were able to delay those cutbacks when they received hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal government in 2009 to ride out the recession.  That money has all been spent, and now states are being forced to slash spending and raise taxes to comply with balanced-budget requirements.  Congress has given little serious consideration to reviving the stimulus program.”

Some economists see the light at the end of the tunnel.  “The pace of fiscal retrenchment is likely to pick up in coming years,” said Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, “and this year’s experience confirms our view that this adjustment is likely to weigh on GDP growth.”

Is QE3 On the Horizon?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Now that QE2 (quantitative easing 2) is winding down – and with the economy sputtering – will Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke call for a new round of stimulus in the form of QE3? The answer likely is “no”, although it’s doubtful that the Fed will tighten monetary policy until the economy is stronger.  The central bank’s strategy has been to buy Treasury bonds to increase the money supply and foster growth.  The second round of such purchases, worth $600 billion, ends June 30.

Writing in the Washington Post, Neil Irwin says that “The lousy unemployment report comes on the heels of other disappointing economic data, but Fed officials view the current situation as different from the conditions that led to last year’s bond buying.  The recent round of data is neither alarming enough nor definitive enough to make them reconsider the unconventional monetary policy.  For one, much of the economic slowdown in the first half of the year was likely driven by temporary factors.  The Japanese earthquake and tsunami appear to have disrupted the supply chain at U.S. factories more than initial forecasts, contributing to the drop in manufacturing activity and May’s sluggish employment report.  And although oil prices spiked earlier in the year, they have ebbed downward since late April.”

Mohamed A. El-Erian, CEO and Co-CIO of Pimco, agrees, noting that “Notwithstanding the historical parallel, I suspect that it is very unlikely that there will be a QE3.  This view is based on an assessment of economic, political and international factors.  As Chairman Bernanke noted in his August Jackson Hole speech, and reiterated in his first press conference, policy measures should be judged in terms of the expected balance of benefits, costs and risks.  I suspect that there is now broad agreement that, in the case of QE3, this balance has shifted: lowering the potential gains and increasing the probability of collateral damage and adverse unintended consequences.  It is also clear that, in its attempt to deliver ‘good’ asset price inflation (e.g., higher equity prices), the Fed also got ‘bad’ inflation.  The latter, which essentially took the form of higher commodity prices, is stagflationary in that it imposes an inflationary tax on both production and consumption — thus countering the objective of QE2.”

There’s also the point that QE2 has had mixed results.  According to Bernanke, “Yields on 5- to 10-year nominal Treasury securities initially declined markedly as markets priced in prospective Fed purchases; these yields subsequently rose, however, as investors became more optimistic about economic growth and as traders scaled back their expectations of future securities purchases.  Equity prices have risen significantly, volatility in the equity market has fallen, corporate bond spreads have narrowed, and inflation compensation…has risen to historically more normal levels.”

Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser warns that QE2 provides excessive stimulus: The central bank has “a trillion-plus excess reserves,” he noted, which could be “the fuel for inflation.”  Anticipated inflation could explain the sudden increase in long-term yields that began last November.  But the rate for 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), rose at the same time, which contradicts that interpretation.  At the same time, the five-year TIP rate didn’t rise.  Had that rate increased, there would have been a sign of a stronger economy in the next five years.

UBS thinks that QE2 failed and is strongly opposed to another round of stimulus.  Maury N. Harris, UBS’ Managing Director and Chief Economist for the Americas, says that “The evidence that QE2 boosted economic activity is lacking.  Yields moved higher and equity markets did as well, although the latter was justified by rising corporate earnings.  They importantly reflected better volumes, which probably cannot be traced to any believable instantaneous response to policy that works with a lag.  Despite the recent weakness in the data, we continue to view the recent slowing as insufficient to prompt further QE from the Federal Reserve.  Relative to conditions in August 2010, when QE2 was floated by Chairman Bernanke, labor market conditions are better.  Additionally, the threat of disinflation last fall has given way to a somewhat more disturbing build-up in inflation pressures as core inflation continues to accelerate.”

Bernanke Press Conferences Shedding Light on the Fed’s Inner Workings

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Ben Bernanke’s first-ever press conference is important because the unprecedented move gives the world a look at the inner workings of the often arcane Federal Reserve.  As a general rule, the Fed’s chairman avoids press conferences.  Typically they issue statements that are worded with extreme care.  Since the economic meltdown, however, the Fed’s increased role in crafting the nation’s fiscal policy has been under the microscope.  As a result Bernanke decided to start holding press conferences every few months “to further enhance the clarity and timeliness of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy communication”

Veteran Fed watchers say Bernanke will avoid make any unexpected observations about the economy.  The Fed almost certainly won’t raise interest rates or change the course of the Quantitative Easing 2 (QE2) program to boost economic recovery.  What makes the event important is that it is a new chapter in the history of U.S. central banking, one that brings transparency that allows the Federal Reserve to make its case for monetary policy directly to the American people.  The press conference, “whose ostensible purpose is to add more transparency regarding Fed policy, is really designed to help repair its image with the general public, a process that began when Bernanke first appeared on ’60 Minutes,'” writes Bernie Baumohl, chief economist at The Economic Outlook Group.  “The press conference serves multiple purposes.  It helps explain the Fed’s role in the economy, improves public trust in the central bank, and can be used discreetly as a platform to place more pressure on Congress to reduce the swelling budget deficits.”  During the financial crisis, some criticized the Federal Reserve’s role in the economy, with conservative Tea Party movement members calling for a dissolution of the Fed or a Congressionally-mandated opening up of the once-secretive central bank.  The press conference is intended to silence the critics by providing certain details that were previously denied.

The Fed is notoriously tight lipped Until 1994, the Fed never notified’ the public of policy changes, leaving an army of Wall Street “Fed watchers” to figure them out for themselves. The Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) did not release statements on a regular basis until 1999.  The majority of Fed chairmen have shied away from the cameras.  Now, Bernanke is welcoming them.  Although Bernanke excels at not saying anything newsworthy, the timing of the first press conference comes at a particularly sensitive time: shortly before the end of the controversial QE2 monetary policy program, and during an argument over inflation.  Bernanke and other FOMC members, such as Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen, argue that inflation remains subdued: Demand is slack, and core inflation below-target.  But not everyone shares that view. More hawkish Fed officials, such as Thomas Hoenig of the Kansas City Fed, have pointed to frothiness in oil, food, and commodities markets to make loud calls for tightening.

Writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Washington Insider columnist Jamie DuPree says that “Ben Bernanke starts what will be the first of four annual news conferences about the work of the Fed.  The job of Fed Chairman has always been a little mysterious, feeding a variety of conspiracy theories about its work and ties to other groups like the Trilateral Commission and more.  The news conferences will take place four times a year, after the Fed meets for its quarterly policy-making meeting, where announcements are made on interest rates and economic policy.  Bernanke is no stranger to the limelight, as he testifies regularly on Capitol Hill, taking questions from lawmakers.  But Fed Chairs usually don’t do press conferences – and you don’t have to have much of an imagination to wonder if there could be some odd questions thrown his way.  In fact, Fed Chairs often don’t do interviews either, making his twice-per-year testimony before the Congress a big story to cover.  Because the insight of the Fed Chairman is so important to the markets, the Federal Reserve does not want the testimony leaked early, for fear that someone could use it to manipulate trading in some way.”