Posts Tagged ‘recession’

CMBS Poised for a Comeback

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

CMBS was a $230 billion industry prior to the recession. Today, we live in an era of lowered expectations where every victory needs celebrating as we get back into gear. Take Chicago, where lenders originated and sold off $2.48 billion in loans on Chicago-area properties last year, more than double the $1.20 billion in 2012, according to Trepp LLC, a New York-based research firm. Nationally, CMBS lending rose 85 percent last year, to $82.23 billion. So, we are 35% of the way back. A big part of this rebound is that lenders have eased rates and LTVs. Last year, the average U.S. CMBS loan equaled 63.6 percent of the property’s value, up from 59.8 percent in 2007, according to Trepp.

Another signal of the rebounding bond market is that troubled loans have been getting worked out and traded. First, CWCapital Asset Management LLC put properties with $2.57 billion of unpaid loan balances up for sale. Now, Blackstone Group LP (BX), Starwood Capital Group LLC and CIM Group are all following suit. About 700 bidders registered interest in the auction, which includes foreclosed loans, according to Morgan Stanley. What’s happening is that special servicers, seeing the surge in property values, are unwinding holdings from the real-estate collapse. According to Green Street Advisors Inc., commercial property prices have rallied 71 percent from their 2009 low, surpassing 2007 highs in some areas.

Looking ahead, many experts predict that U.S. CMBS lending will top $100 billion this year. The Chicago area could surpass $3 billion in 2014.

Beware: Double Dip Ahead?

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

The 17-nation Eurozone is at risk of falling into a “severe recession,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned, as it called on governments and the European Central Bank to act quickly to keep the slowdown from becoming a drag on the global economy.  OECD Chief Economist Pier Carlo Padoan warned the euro-zone economy has the potential to shrink as much as two percent in 2012, a figure that the think tank had described as its worst-case scenario last November.  The OECD -which comprises the world’s most developed economies — said its average forecast was that the Euro-zone economy will shrink 0.1 percent in 2012 and grow a mere 0.9 percent next year.  “Today we see the situation in the Euro area close to the possible downside scenario” in the OECD’s November report, “which if materializing could lead to a severe recession in the Euro area and with spillovers in the rest of the world,” Padoan said.

The report believes that Europe will lag behind other countries, especially the United States, where the economy is expected to grow 2.4 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2013.  “There is now a diverging trend between the euro area and the U.S., where the U.S. is picking up more strongly while the euro area is lagging behind,” Padoan said.  Europe is split between a wealthier north that is growing and the southern nations that are falling into recession, according to OECD statistics.

The global economic outlook is still cloudy,” said Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary General. “At first sight the prospects for the global economy are somewhat brighter than six months ago.  At closer inspection, the global economic recovery is weak, considerable downside risks remain and sizable imbalances remain to be addressed.”

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, will grow two percent next year after expanding 1.2 percent in 2012.  France, the Eurozone’s second-biggest economy, will grow 1.2 percent next year after expanding 0.6 percent this year, the OECD said.  By contrast, Italy’s economy is expected to shrink 1.7 percent this year and 0.4 percent in 2013.  Spain will remain mired in recession, with contraction of 1.6 percent this year and 0.8 percent in 2013.  Padoan has asked Eurozone leaders to enter into a “growth compact” to promote expansion while cutting deficits.  French President Francois Hollande has made achieving this type of pact the focus of his European diplomacy.

The OECD is chiefly concerned that problems with European sovereign debt are a significant threat to growth around the world. “The crisis in the Eurozone remains the single biggest downside risk facing the global outlook,” Padoan said.  “This is a global crisis which is largely a debt crisis.  It is a result of excessive debt accumulation in both the private and public sectors.  One can not safely say we’re out of the crisis until debt comes down to more manageable levels.”

To protect its economic recovery, the OECD urged the American government to move very gradually to tighten its budget.  A wave of U.S. spending cuts and tax hikes – known as the “fiscal cliff” — are set to take effect in January unless politicians agree to delay at least some of them.  Bush-era tax cuts and benefits for the long-term jobless are both expected to expire.  Another $1.2 trillion in spending cuts on federal programs would take effect as a result of Congress’ failure last year to find a comprehensive deal to cut the budget deficit.  The OECD said these actions would be the wrong fiscal policy given the still-fragile condition of world’s largest economy.  “The programmed expiration of tax cuts and emergency unemployment benefits, together with automatic federal spending cuts, would result in a sharp fiscal retrenchment in 2013 that might derail the recovery,” according to the OECD.

Wall Street economists say that fiscal policy could tighten by about $600 billion in 2013, or about four percent of GDP, if lawmakers cannot agree on what programs to cut.  Goldman Sachs estimates the “fiscal cliff” could trim approximately four percent from GDP in the first half of 2013.  The majority of economists, however, expect lawmakers to act before that particular hammer has an opportunity to fall.

Eurodammerung?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Despite Germany’s strong manufacturing output in March, it was not enough to compensate for a slump across the rest of the Eurozone with declining production, a signal that an expected recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope.  Industrial production in the 17 Eurozone countries declined 0.3 percent in March when compared with February, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office Eurostat.  Economists had expected a 0.4 percent increase.

The figures stood in stark contrast with German data showing output in the Eurozone’s largest economy rose 1.3 percent in March, according to Eurostat, 2.8 percent when energy and construction are taken into account.  “With the debt crisis, rising unemployment and inflation, household demand is weak and globally economic conditions are sluggish, so that is making people very reluctant to spend and invest,” said Joost Beaumont, a senior economist at ABN Amro.

According to Eurostat, output declined 1.8 percent in Spain; in France — the Eurozone’s second largest economy after Germany — output fell 0.9 percent in March.  Many economists expect Eurostat to announce that the Eurozone went into its second recession in just three years at the end of March, with households suffering the effects of austerity programs designed to slash debt and deficits.

“Industrial production is a timely reminder that first-quarter GDP will likely show a contraction,” said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING.  “With the fiscal squeeze unlikely to ease soon and the debt crisis flaring up again, any upturn in industrial activity later this year will likely be modest.”  European officials believe that the slump will be mild, with recovery in the 2nd half of this year.  The strong economic data seen in January has unexpectedly faded point to a deeper downturn, with the drag coming from a debt-laden south, particularly Greece, Spain and Italy.

Economists polled by Reuters estimated the Eurozone economy contracted 0.2 percent in the 1st quarter, after shrinking 0.3 percent in the 4th quarter of 2011.  “We suspect that a further slowdown in the service sector meant that the wider economy contracted by around 0.2 percent last quarter,” said Ben May, an economist at Capital Economics.  “What’s more, April’s disappointing survey data for both the industrial and service sectors suggest that the recession may continue beyond the first quarter.”

“It is evident that Eurozone manufacturers are currently finding life very difficult amid challenging conditions,” said Howard Archer at IHS Global Insight. “Domestic demand is being handicapped by tighter fiscal policy in many Eurozone countries, still squeezed consumer purchasing power, and rising unemployment.”  Eurozone governments have introduced broad austerity measures in order to cut debt, and these have undermined economic growth.

European watchers also expect to see Greece exit the Eurozone.  Writing for Forbes, Tim Worstall says that “As Paul Krugman points out, the odds on Greece leaving the Eurozone are shortening by the day.  In and of itself this shouldn’t be all that much of a problem for anyone. Greece is only two percent of Eurozone GDP and it will be a blessed relief for the Greeks themselves.  However, the thing about the unraveling of such political plans as the Euro is that once they do start to unravel they tend not to stop.”

The European Commission hopes Greece will remain part of the Eurozone but Athens must respect its obligations, the European Unions executive Commission said.  “We don’t want Greece to leave the Euro, quite the contrary – we are doing our utmost to support Greece,” European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.  Greece is likely to face new elections next month after three failed attempts to form a government that would support the terms of an EU/IMF bailout.  Opinion polls show most Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, but oppose the harsh austerity imposed by the emergency lending program.  “We wish Greece will remain in the euro and we hope Greece will remain in the euro … but it must respect its commitments,” according to Ahrenkilde.  “The Commission position remains completely unchanged: we want Greece to be able to stay in the Euro.  This is the best thing for Greece, for the Greek people and for Europe as a whole,” she said.

European Central Bank (ECB) policymakers Luc Coene and Patrick Honohan voiced the possibility that Greece might leave the currency bloc and reached the conclusion that it will not be fatal for the Eurozone.  According to Luxembourg’s Finance Minister Luc Frieden “If Greece needs help from outside, the conditions have to be met.  All political parties in Greece know that.”  There are powerful incentives for keeping Greece stable, one of which is that the ECB and Eurozone governments are major holders of Greek government debt.  A hard default could mean heavy losses for them; if the ECB needed recapitalizing as a result, that debt would fall on its members’ governments, with Germany first in line.  “If Greece moves towards exiting the Euro…the EU would then need to enlarge its bailout funds and prepare other emergency measures,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned euro skeptics to avoid gloating over the state of the Eurozone as Greece tries to assemble a workable government.  According to Clegg, “We as a country depend massively on the prosperity of the Eurozone for our own prosperity, which is why I can never understand people who engage in schadenfreude – handwringing satisfaction that things are going wrong in the euro.  We have an overwhelming interest – whatever your views are on Brussels and the EU – in seeing a healthy Eurozone.  That’s why I very much hope, buffeted by these latest scares and crises in Greece and elsewhere, that the Eurozone moves as fast as possible to a sustainable solution because if the Eurozone is not growing and the Eurozone is not prosperous it will be much more difficult for the United Kingdom economy to gather momentum.”

Britain Slides Into Double-Dip Recession

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Europe’s financial woes have spread across the English Channel as the United Kingdom slid into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s. Britain’s GDP fell 0.2 percent from the 4th quarter of 2011, when it declined 0.3 percent, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

As anti-austerity backlash grows on the Continent, Prime Minister David Cameron said the data was “disappointing” and promised to shore up growth without backtracking on the UK’s biggest fiscal squeeze since World War II.  “I don’t seek to excuse them, I don’t seek to try to explain them away,” Cameron said.  “There is no complacency at all in this government in dealing with what is a very tough situation, which frankly has just got tougher.”  Cameron said “We have got to rebalance our economy.  We need a bigger private sector.  We need more exports, more investment.  This is painstaking, difficult work but we will stick to our plans, stick with low interest rates and do everything we can to boost growth, competitiveness and jobs in our country.”

Opposition leader Ed Miliband said the figures are “catastrophic” and asked Cameron why this had happened.  “This is a recession made by him and the chancellor in Downing Street.  It is his catastrophic economic policy that has landed us back in recession,” Miliband said.

The Bank of England is in the last month of economic stimulus and the fall-off in output comes as prospects dim in the Eurozone, Britain’s biggest export market.  “This isn’t supportive of the fiscal consolidation program, so the government is likely to be concerned about that,” said Philip Rush, an economist at Nomura International in London.  “The data were bad, and that supports the view that the Bank of England will do a final £25 billion of quantitative easing in May.”

According to ONS, output in the production industries decreased by 0.4 percent; construction fell by three percent.  Output of the services sector, which includes retail, increased by 0.1 percent.  The decline in government spending contributed to the particularly large fall in the construction sector.  “The huge cuts to public spending – 25 percent in public sector housing and 24 percent in public non-housing and further 10 percent cuts to both anticipated for 2013 — have left a hole too big for other sectors to fill,” said Judy Lowe, deputy chairman of industry body CITB-ConstructionSkills, said.

The UK’s last double-dip recession, defined as consecutive quarterly drops in GDP, was in 1975. At that time, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was in office and Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the opposition Conservatives.  UK Treasury forecasters and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) believe the economy will grow 0.8 percent this year, the same as last year.  According to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the UK’s economic situation is “very tough” and the government should stick to its plans of eliminating a majority of the deficit by 2017.  “The one thing that would make the situation even worse would be to abandon our credible plan and deliberately add more borrowing and even more debt.  It’s taking longer than anyone hoped to recover from the biggest debt crisis of our lifetime,” Osborne said. “The one thing that would make the situation even worse would be to abandon our credible plan and deliberately add more borrowing and even more debt.”

Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said: “The underlying strength of the economy is probably much more robust than these data suggest.  The danger is that these gloomy data deliver a fatal blow to the fragile revival of consumer and business confidence seen so far this year, harming the recovery and even sending the country back into a real recession.”

Not everyone agrees that the data indicates a double-dip recession.  Writing in the Telegraph, Philip Aldrick says that “Economists have been questioning the reliability of the ONS numbers for a while now, but the latest data drew the debate sharply into focus.  At -0.2 percent, the GDP reading was considerably worse than the consensus of 0.1 percent growth.  The ‘discrepancy’, as Goldman Sachs’ Kevin Daly described it, was ‘unbelievable’ because much of the recent survey data – from the Bank of England’s agents’ reports to the purchasing managers’ indices – have been encouraging.  Andrew Goodwin of the Ernst & Young ITEM Club agreed.  ‘Our reaction is one of disbelief,’ he said.  ‘The divergence is virtually unprecedented and must raise significant question marks over the quality of the data.’  They are not alone.  No lesser institution than the Bank of England has queried the ONS data.  Last week, minutes to the Monetary Policy Committee meeting damningly noted: ‘The sharp falls in construction output in December and January were perplexing, and the Committee was minded not to place much weight on them.”

March Housing Starts Down, While Construction Permits Rise

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

American homebuilders started construction on new houses in March at a slower pace, but in an ironic twist, the number of construction permits jumped to their highest level in 3 ½ years.  This is a positive signal for the slumping residential industry.  According to the Department of Commerce, housing starts fell 5.8 percent to an annual rate of 654,000, significantly below the MarketWatch forecast of economists who had projected an increase to 703,000.  Housing starts in February were also revised down slightly, to 694,000 from 698,000.  At the same time, building permits — a measure of future demand — rose 4.5 percent to 747,000 in March from February’s revised 715,000.  The increase occurred entirely in the multi-dwelling housing segment.

The increase in permits suggests builders are increasingly optimistic as the industry recovers from the worst slump in modern times. Multi-family permits rose 24.2 percent to 262,000.  On the other hand, permits for single-family homes fell 3.5 percent to 462,000 — evidence that builders still face pressure from a deluge of foreclosures.  Many buyers are looking for deals on existing homes instead of paying more for new construction.

Some economists speculate that warm weather contributed to the March decline in housing starts because it allowed builders to start new projects in January and February that they normally would have begun in spring.  “It appears that the payback from an unusually warm fall and winter came in March as record warm temperatures likely pulled new construction forward,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva of BNP Paribas.

The average March temperature was 51.1 degrees; that’s 38.6 degrees warmer than the 20th century average and the hottest March since records were first kept in 1895, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.  Spring home sales are expected to outpace last year as record low mortgage rates produce an attractive market for home buyers.  The average fixed rate on a 30-year mortgage was 3.88 percent in mid-April, according to Freddie Mac and may fall again.

An oversupply of unsold homes is holding prices down, creating a major difficulty for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.  “The production side of the housing market is in the early stages of recovery, but builders are shifting their composition of products from condos and single-family homes to apartment construction.  It’s going to be rocky for awhile.  You still have inventory overhang.  There are also issues on the financing side of production as well as the mortgage side.  The problem is getting over the financing hurdle. Lenders are still very concerned about where they put their capital.  From a trend perspective, it is still on a rising path.  Tentative is the best we could say about this.”

Even a slow-growing housing market is a big plus because it is no longer a drag on the broader economy. Residential real estate was the cause of the financial crisis and the recession, so it’s encouraging to see this sector moving in the right direction.  It’s early to expect strong, sustained growth in the immediate future.  “Housing continues to bump along the bottom,” said Jacob Oubina, a senior economist at RBC Capital Markets.  “The best we can hope from housing over the next couple years is that it won’t subtract from growth.”

According to Omer Esiner, Chief Market Analyst, Commonwealth Foreign Exchange, “The housing data is mixed.  On the one hand housing starts came in below expectations and on the other hand it was a strong month for permits, which bodes well for the months ahead.  So the rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data.”

Is Greece Headed Towards a Third Bailout?

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Lucas Papademos, Greece’s prime minister, said that his crisis-plagued country could require a third bailout just weeks after it secured a second round of rescue funds after much discussion in Brussels. Athens may have received the biggest bailout in history but another lifeline could not be ruled out, according to Papademos.  To date, the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have committed a total €240 billion to the nearly bankrupt nation.  “Some form of financial assistance might be necessary but we have to work intensely to avoid such an event,” Papademos said, noting that additional spending cuts are inevitable.  Whatever government emerges after the upcoming general election, it is vital that is it prepared for the measures.  “In 2013 – 2014, a reduction in state spending of about €12 billion is required under the new economic program,” Papademos said.  “Every effort must be made to limit wasteful spending and not to further burden salaries of civil servants.”

Greece’s new government will have “about 60 days” to enact long-overdue structural reforms and agree on ways of reining in public debt before officials make a decisive inspection tour in June.  “It is very important that there is no let up in the pace of reforms after elections,” said a senior Papademos aide.  The chiefs of both the EU and IMF missions to Greece said while progress is being made in meeting deficit-reducing targets, a lot of work remains to be done.  “There are still many measures to be taken, painful ones too.  I believe we’ll be able to see in the second half of the year in which direction we’re going, whether we’re on the right path or not,” said Matthias Mors, head EU monitor.

Papademos reiterated that Greece will do everything necessary to remain in the Eurozone, saying the cost of an exit would be “devastating.  More than 70 percent of the Greek people support the country’s continuing participation in the euro area,” he said.  “They realize, despite the sacrifices made, that the long-term benefits from remaining in the Eurozone outweigh the short-term costs.  Greece will do everything possible to make a third adjustment program unnecessary,” Papademos said.  “Having said that, markets may not be accessible by Greece even if it has implemented fully all measures agreed on.  It cannot be excluded that some financial support may be necessary, but we must try hard to avoid such an outcome.”

Private investors in Greek debt wrote down the value of their investment by 53.5 percent, or risk losing everything in a possible default.  Public-sector jobs are being slashed, workers ‘ wages are being frozen, welfare payments are being slashed, and taxes are being raised.  Greece’s official unemployment rate is currently more than 20 percent.  If Greece does default, it could start a domino effect that would drag down other ailing European economies — possibly plunging the Eurozone into recession.

According to Papademos, “The real economy is still weak, and high unemployment is likely to persist in the near future.  The challenging period ahead of us needs to be addressed with great care.  If we do things right, implementing all measures agreed upon in a timely, effective and equitable manner, and if we explain our policy objectives and strategy convincingly, public support will be sustained.  An improvement in confidence would have a positive multiplier effect on economic activity and employment.”

When asked if Greece might return to its old currency, Papademos said “The consequences would be devastating.  A return to the drachma would cause high inflation, unstable exchange rate, and a loss of real value of bank deposits.  Real incomes would drop sharply, the banking system would be severely destabilized, there would be many bankruptcies, and unemployment would increase.  A return to the drachma would increase social inequalities, favoring those who have money abroad.”

Rising Unemployment Could Push Eurozone Into a Double-Dip Recession

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office.  That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced.  European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.

According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011.  The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months.  “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.  “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent.  Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations.  The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit.  “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.

According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate.  France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy.  Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.

Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent.  Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.

With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere.  “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.  She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”

The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London.  “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption.  The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”

Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon.  If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip.  Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world.  If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble.  If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done.  Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year?  Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets.  Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio.  Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”

Rising Gas Prices Send Americans to Mass Transit

Monday, March 19th, 2012

American public transportation ridership rose 2.3 percent last year as gas prices rose to their highest-ever annual average, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  The 10.4 billion trips recorded last year was the highest since 2008, when gas prices hit more than $4 a gallon nationwide for seven weeks in the summer.

APTA said economic recovery, that sees more Americans commuting to and from work, added to ridership.  Approximately 60 percent of commutes are for work.  Greater use of smart-phone apps, which “demystify” schedules for riders, also boosted ridership, the APTA said.  Increases in public transportation were reported in communities of all sizes and among light rail, subway, commuter train and bus services, the APTA said.  The largest increase — 5.4 percent — occurred in rural communities with populations of less than 100,000, said Michael Melaniphy, APTA’s president and chief executive.

Spending on public transport totals in the region of $50 billion a year, Melaniphy said.  Funding for public transportation is split nearly 50/50 between federal dollars from the gas tax, money from state and local property and sales taxes, and ridership fees.

In Boston, where unemployment has fallen two percent since the beginning of 2010, ridership rose four percent last year to an average of 1.3 million passenger trips a day on weekdays, said Joe Pesaturo, of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Because of the recession, transit agencies were forced to operate more efficiently and better care for existing systems and equipment, said Robert Puentes, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.  That has resulted in better service.

In terms of specific modes of transit, light rail (including streetcars and trolleys) led with a 4.9 percent increase.  This was followed by heavy rail (subways and elevated trains) at 3.3 percent; commuter rail at 2.5 percent; and large bus systems at 0.4 percent.

It’s ironic that these increases occurred despite the fact that transit agencies have had to increase fares and decrease service because of budget cuts, according to Melaniphy. “Can you imagine what ridership growth would have been like if they hadn’t had to do those fare increases and service cuts?”

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.

Is Hard-Hit Ireland Resolving It’s Economic Crisis?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Ireland was one of the nations that was hardest hit by the Eurozone crisis, but now it’s being seen as leading stricken nations in their efforts to turn their economies around.  International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union (EU) officials are impressed by its austerity measures, imposed after the massive 2010 bailout.  For the average Irish person, however, the gain is hard to see.  Public services have been slashed, and housing prices have declined 60 percent.  Approximately 1,000 young Irish people emigrate every week, and there’s extensive cynicism whether economic medicine being taken by the once-mighty Celtic Tiger actually works.

Ireland’s unemployment is currently upwards of 14 percent.  At the start of Ireland’s second year of austerity, there have been tax rises, wage freezes, layoffs and more.  This is being supervised by the so-called Troika, the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF.  These entities bailed out Ireland after the property bubble burst and its banks collapsed.

Larry Elliott, economics editor of The Guardian, describes Ireland as “the Icarus economy.  It was the low-tax, Celtic tiger model that became the European home for US multinationals in the hi-tech sectors of pharma and IT.  Ireland was open, export-driven and growing fast, but flew too close to the sun and crashed back to earth.  The final humiliation came when it had to seek a bailout a year ago.  In a colossal property bubble, debt as a share of household income doubled, the balance of payments sank deeper and deeper into the red, the government finances become over-reliant on stamp duty from the sale of houses and the banks leveraged up to the eyeballs.

During the time running up to the bubble bursting, Elliott says that “A series of emergency packages and austerity budgets followed as the government sought to balance the books during a recession in which national output sank by 20 percent.  In November 2010, the Irish government asked for external support from the EU and the IMF.  Again, it had little choice in the matter.  The terms of the bailout were tough and there has been no let-up in the austerity.  The finance minister, Michael Noonan, plans to put up the top rate of VAT by two points to 23 percent.  At least 100,000 homeowners are in negative equity, and welfare payments (with the exception of pensions) have been slashed.  In recent quarters there have been signs of life in the Irish economy, but the boost has come entirely from the export sector, which has benefited from the increased competitiveness prompted by cost-cutting.  The best that can be said for its domestic economy is that the decline appears to have bottomed out.  At least for now.

“Around a third of Ireland’s exports go to Britain, which is heading for stagnation, a third go to the eurozone, which is almost certainly heading for recession, and a third go to the United States, which will suffer contamination effects from the crisis in Europe.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the supply side of the Irish economy is sound.  Much attention is paid to Ireland’s low level of corporation tax, which has certainly acted as a magnet for inward investment, but that is not the only reason the big multinationals have arrived.  There is a young, skilled workforce and Dublin does not have London’s hang-up about using industrial policy to invest capital in growth sectors.  Ireland had a dysfunctional banking system, but most of the multinationals — which account for 80 percent of the country’s exports — don’t rely on domestic banks for their funding.  The problem is that you can’t run a successful economy on exports alone, no matter how competitive they might be.”

In fact, Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, recently called for even deeper budget cuts.  Kenny outlined savings of up to €3.8 billion needed to slash its national debt under the terms of 2010’s EU/International Monetary Fund bailout.  Kenny appealed for understanding from the Irish people and stressed that the nation may have to endure a further two or three harsh budgets to put the country’s finances in order. He said on Saturday that the Republic “was in the region of €18 billion out of line”.

“It is the same old story with Ireland in our view — doing good work and will continue to do so,” Brian Devine, economist at NCB Stockbrokers in Dublin said.  “But the country is still extremely vulnerable given the level of the deficit.”  The anticipated adjustments total approximately eight percent of Ireland’s economy, and follow spending cuts and tax rises of more than €20 billion since the economy began to decline in 2008.

And how are the Irish people dealing with austerity? “We’re squeezed to the pips,” said Tommy Larkin, a 35-year-old mechanic changing tires and oil on the double in northside Dublin.  “I never had to watch my money in the good times, but that’s all I do with my money now.”

Wages for middle-class families have been cut around 15 percent, while the nearly 15 percent unemployed have seen welfare and other aid payments cut.  The government recently imposed a new household tax, and is planning new water charges next.  Driving a car can mean an annual fee of anything from $205 to $3,045, while recent fuel-tax increase haves taken gas upwards of $7.25 per gallon.