Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Guest Post: "RJS Analysis – Japanese Disaster Impact"

RJS had been a long-time commenter at my blog, News N Economics, and has joined Angry Bear’s thread of comments. RJS runs his own blog, Global Glass Onion, where he publishes a weekly newsletter encompassing news from around the world for his readership. Collaborating with Dan, we asked RJS to make a similar contribution to Angry Bear, where he has kindly agreed to format the topics and style to fit our needs. The style of rj’s Analysis is evolving, so please comment with your feedback. Rebecca Wilder

A guest post by RJS: “RJS Analysis – Japanese Disaster Impact”

Although some east coast Japanese ports were damaged by the tsunami, and most of the infrastructure in a primary agricultural region has been destroyed, it appears the major problem facing Japan right now is lack of electrical generating capacity; Citigroup analysts say it may be “irreversible”Tokyo has been warned of blackouts during cold weather; this is not so much because of the loss of the infrastructure; rather the 9.7 GW taken out of service with the six closed reactors is a lion’s share of the electric power in the east. These operate on US style 60Hz power, while the generating capacity in the west of Japan is a legacy of 19th century German generators, which run at 50Hz, and the two systems don’t talk to each other… We now learn that rolling blackouts will likely continue into the summer because TEPCO will only be able to supply 50 million KW per day, whereas typical peak summer usage is 60 million KW… The shortfall may eventually be made up by spare gas and diesel generating capacity; but as of yet, I’ve yet to see a timeline as to when. So at present, even many of the Japanese manufacturers who were not damaged by the quake have shut down their production lines; and as many are the sole makers of various automotive & electrical components, manufacturing around the globe is starting to be affected… How bad this can become globally is still anyone’s guess; but in the one similar experience we had with a resin plant fire in japan in 1993, prices of semiconductors doubled in a matter of days. In just one example illustrative of the problem, making the i-phone alone involves 9 different companies, in Korea, Japan, Taipei, China, Germany, and the US…
(Read more after the jump)

Stress Test for the Global Supply Chain – “Day in and day out, the global flow of goods routinely adapts to all kinds of glitches and setbacks. A supply breakdown in one factory in one country, for example, is quickly replaced by added shipments from suppliers elsewhere in the network. Sometimes, the problems span whole regions and require emergency action for days or weeks. When a volcano erupted in Iceland last spring, spewing ash across northern Europe and grounding air travel, supply-chain wizards were put to a test, juggling production and shipments worldwide to keep supplies flowing. But the disaster in Japan, experts say, presents a first-of-its-kind challenge, even if much remains uncertain. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, and a vital supplier of parts and equipment for major industries like computers, electronics and automobiles. The worst of the damage was northeast of Tokyo, near the quake’s epicenter, though Japan’s manufacturing heartland is farther south. But greater problems will emerge if rolling electrical blackouts and transportation disruptions across the country continue for long.”

Made in Japan: What Is Country Exporting? – “The crisis in Japan triggered by the March 11 earthquake hasn’t just disrupted domestic production, but also poses problems to trading partners that rely on Japanese goods. (See an interactive graphic showing Japan’s exports.) Japan is the world’s fourth-largest exporter and most of the products it sends overseas are machinery and transportation equipment, which include everything from heavy industrial machinery and semiconductors to refrigerators and cars. The country accounts for about 14% of world exports of automotive products. Japan exported some $469.64 billion of machinery and transportation equipment in 2010. Japan also is a key supplier of advanced components to Asian nations that specialize in the final assembly phase of manufacturing. China depends on Japan for 13% of its imports, largely capital goods such as machine tools and electronic parts for manufacturing. Filed under miscellaneous goods are such products as precision instruments, particularly scientific, optical instruments.”

Japan Quake Could Have Big Impact on U.S. Output – “Investors counting on robust manufacturing data for March may be in for an unpleasant surprise next month. When the March data come out in mid-April it will likely mark the second month in a row of declining U.S. industrial output and could mark the start of a worrying trend. Industrial output slipped 0.1% in February. Why will this decline likely happen? It’s because the after-effects of the March earthquake in Japan are disrupting automobile manufacturing in North America in a hefty way. This matters because, despite popular belief, automobile manufacturing still is a meaningful part of the industrial sector. Here’s how it’s playing out: Japan still is a major supplier of parts to U.S.-based car factories. It isn’t just Japanese car brands, like Toyota and Honda, which both announced they would temporarily halt production at some plants in the U.S. General Motors has been impacted by the problem, notably furloughing workers in New York state and Louisiana. It doesn’t take a supply disruption of many car parts to mean that a auto maker has to halt output for an entire plant, at least temporarily.”

Supply Shortages Stall Auto Makers – “General Motors Co. will stop some work at two European factories and is mulling production cuts in South Korea, amid growing uncertainty over how its plants around the world will be affected by the crisis in Japan. A shortage of Japanese-built electronic parts will force GM to close a plant in Zaragoza, Spain, on Monday and cancel shifts at a factory in Eisenach, Germany, on Monday and Tuesday, the company said Friday. Both factories build the Corsa small car. Meanwhile, the company’s South Korean unit said it is considering cutting production to deal with a potential shortage.”

Toyota: Quake to affect US – “Toyota Motor Corp. says it is likely to experience production interruptions at its North American factories because of the disruption in supplies of auto parts coming from quake-ravaged Japan. Toyota’s automaking operations in Japan have been halted since March 14 as it reviews the condition of suppliers providing the 20,000 or more components that make up vehicles. Auto engineers scouring the northeastern region have found many facilities that were damaged and others that were destroyed, and most automakers haven’t completed their assessments. Toyota’s U.S. manufacturing subsidiary in Erlanger, Ky., told its U.S. employees, plant workers and dealers Wednesday that some production interruptions in North America were likely. The automaker said it could not predict which sites would be affected or for how long. Most of the components used in Toyota’s North American assembly operations come from some 500 suppliers in the region.”

Libya war, Japan disaster putting brakes on auto industry‎ – “There are about 15,000 parts in most cars, but the absence of just one can wreak havoc. That’s especially true when it comes to microprocessors, which control everything from an engine’s fuel mix to the car’s global positioning system.About one in every five microprocessors is made in Japan, and many are made at plants that were severely damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. So just as U.S. auto sales gather steam, the unexpected war in Libya, surging gas prices and now production cuts triggered by the earthquake have thrown uncertainty into automakers’ rosy 2011 outlook. Automakers could lose production of up to 5 million vehicles in the next four months,”

Automakers Still Reeling From Japan Quake – “The earthquake and tsunami in Japan are still disrupting the auto industry worldwide, and it could be harder to find that car you want as a result. Toyota (TM) says it will probably idle a truck plant in Texas because it can’t get enough parts, according to Reuters. “It is likely that we will see some nonproduction days coming,” a spokesman said. “At this point, we are still not sure of when those might hit or, if they do it, what the duration may be.” The entire sector is feeling aftershocks from the tragedy. Even American automakers are not immune, as they import parts from Japan. General Motors (GM) temporarily stopped production at a plant in Louisiana and laid off more than 50 workers at a plant in New York. But the Japanese automakers are the hardest hit, with recovery efforts hampered by widespread power outages. Post continues after video about Toyota and Honda production:

Toyota and Ford to stop making cars in certain colors – “Automakers may run low on certain paint colors because of a shortage of a pigment produced in an area close to the damaged Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan. Ford Motor Co. has alerted dealers to stop ordering vehicles in tuxedo black and three shades of red. Toyota Motor Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC also are among automakers that will be affected by the pigment shortage. The German pigment manufacturer Merck Group confirmed that the Japanese plant that makes a pigment called Xirallic had halted production because it was in the exclusion zone around the damaged nuclear power complex…once engineers can get inside the plant, the company believes production can be restarted in four to eight weeks.”

Panic buying raises prices on Prius, Fit – “Americans have begun snapping up Toyota Prius, Honda Fit and other fuel-efficient models made only in Japan almost the way shoppers denude bread and milk shelves in a supermarket when a storm is predicted. The intensity first spurred by rising gas prices has been amplified by predicted shortages of many models as the Japanese auto industry remains disrupted by the March 11 earthquake and its aftermath. “We’ve gone from 60 (Priuses) in stock to 16″ over the last two months, . A dozen are coming, “but we are told they are going to dwindle” quickly after that. Indicating the shortages may not be brief, Honda has told dealers it’s not taking orders for any vehicles made in Japan in May. March and April orders already were delayed.”

Japan crisis could prompt Ind. autoworker layoffs -”Shortages of auto parts from earthquake-stricken Japan could lead to layoffs at some Indiana factories in the coming weeks. Business analysts don’t expect large cutbacks, but anticipate that some Indiana plants that employ about 50,000 autoworkers will use short workweeks, scattered short-term layoffs and slower line speeds to keep workers busy during the downturn. “I’m not sure it’s going to be a major event. It’s not clear yet,” said economist Thomas Klier of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago told The Indianapolis Star. “We still don’t know what the extent of the damage actually is in Japan.” Trying to determine which plants might be affected by the tumult in Japan is made difficult by the global supply chain that has developed in recent years. Subaru, Toyota and Honda assemble vehicles in Indiana, but the supply system runs to almost every major automaker.”

Bracing for the pinch on auto parts from Japan – “The disaster in Japan already is affecting the U.S. auto industry. Two key questions now are, how much and for how long? Toyota’s 13 factories in the United States, Canada and Mexico have been told to expect shortages of parts made in Japan, and U.S. makers that use Japanese parts also are expecting supply disruptions. And that could mean a temporary drop in inventoriesfor some high-demand vehicles in Texas showrooms. “The biggest unknown in the industry is the parts supply chain,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at, a new car pricing site. Parts shortages could reduce global auto production by about 30 percent”

Automakers May Lose 600000 Vehicles as Quake Hits Parts, Paint‎ — “Global automakers may lose production of 600,000 vehicles by the end of the month as the earthquake in Japan halts assembly lines and work at suppliers including the maker of a paint pigment. About 320,000 vehicles may have been lost worldwide as of March 24, and manufacturing at plants in North America may be affected when parts supplies start running out as soon as early April, said Michael Robinet, vice president of Lexington, Massachusetts-based IHS Automotive.“The next surge of shutdowns comes when the pipeline of parts that were already built dries up,” Robinet said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The rate of lost production will accelerate once North American plants join in.” Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest automaker, said it has lost output of 140,000 vehicles, and Honda Motor Co. has lost 46,600 cars and trucks and 5,000 motorcycles. Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s was lowered by 15,000. Ford Motor Co. hasn’t lost any output, said Todd Nissen, a spokesman.”

Global auto output may fall 30 percent due to quake‎ – “(Reuters) – A shortage of auto parts stemming from Japan‘s earthquake may cut global vehicle output by 30 percent within six weeks in a worst-case scenario, research firm IHS Automotive said on Thursday. This translates to a drop of as many as 100,000 vehicles per day, IHS analyst Michael Robinet said, adding there could be more North American plant shutdowns in the meantime. “We’re already feeling the impact in Japan,” “North America, Europe, China: those three areas for sure will feel some impact.” Last week, General Motors Co (GM.N) idled its pick-up truck plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Toyota Motor Co is likely to idle its own pickup truck plant south of San Antonio.The delivery of parts from transmissions to electronics to semiconductors is being hampered by the Japanese earthquake and subsequent infrastructure problems. About 13 percent of the global auto industry output has been lost now because of parts shortages, Robinet said.The slowdowns could grow even more severe by the third week of April.”

Toyota, Sony Disruptions May Last Weeks After Japan Earthquake – “Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp., two of Japan’s biggest manufacturers, are facing worst-case scenarios of long-term production shortfalls as scores of plants remain closed and workers are idled in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. “The current situation is still difficult,” . The company has shut eight plants in Miyagi, Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures, and workers are inspecting equipment and facilities, he said. Toyota has said it will keep 21 auto and components plants closed until March 22. Sony and Toyota’s efforts to resume production are complicated by the need for hundreds of different components to build TVs and cars from a variety of different suppliers that may have suffered plant damage in the earthquake and tsunami. Japan is also facing electricity shortages because a nuclear- power plant was crippled by the temblor. “This will be played out not in days, but in weeks,” . “Nothing on this scale has really occurred before.””

Shockwaves reverberate from mobiles to jewelery -”Nokia on Monday became the latest company to warn of disruption to its supply chain, highlighting Japan’s role in producing crucial components for a rangeof global manufacturing industries. The Finnish mobile phone maker, which sources about 12 per cent of its components in Japan, said the disaster was likely to affect its manufacturing and supply schedules. “Nokia expects some disruption to the ability . . . to supply a number of products due to the currently anticipated industry-wide shortage of relevant components and raw materials sourced from Japan,” the company said. The Japanese disaster has exposed the risks associated with modern global supply chains, in which companies rely on just-in-time deliveries from a network of global suppliers with little surplus inventory to cushion them from any disruption. Technology manufacturers are particularly exposed to Japan because of its importance as a supplier of semiconductors and other critical components in products such as mobile phones and computers. Several big Japanese technology companies, including Panasonic, Hitachi, Nikon, NEC and Sony, have reported disruption either from earthquake damage or power shortages since the disaster. Ericsson, the Swedish network equipment maker, and Sony Ericsson, its mobile phone joint venture with Sony, are among other non-Japan-based companies which have so far warned of supply chain problems.”

Sony | Japan Disasters Could Hit Consumer Electronics Hard… “Sales of consumer-electronics items, including television sets, DVD players, cameras, personal computers, and video-game players are likely to be impacted by the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Advertising Age observed today (Thursday). The trade publication observed that while the final assembly of those products takes place in other Asian countries, the components are made in Japan. With Sony, Nintendo, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon and other Japanese-based electronics companies forced to shut down plans, parts shortages are likely to increase prices of many items and produce product scarcity even into the holiday season, AdAge observed. Earlier this week research group iSuppli reported that two Japanese plants that account for 25 percent of the global supply of silicon wafers had been forced to suspend operations. Moreover, two other companies that account for 70 percent of the worldwide supply of the main raw material used to make printed circuit boards have also temporarily shut down.”

Tags: , Comments (15) | |

Europe’s industrial new orders: 3 very different stories

Spain vs. Germany vs. UK: production trends showing holes in some growth stories

Eurostat reports new orders for January:

In January 2011 compared with December 2010, the euro area1 (EA17) industrial new orders index2 rose by 0.1%. In December 20103 the index grew by 2.7%. In the EU271, new orders increased by 0.2% in January 2011, after a rise of 2.9% in December 20103. Excluding ships, railway & aerospace equipment4, for which changes tend to be more volatile, industrial new orders increased by 1.6% in the euro area and by 1.9% in the EU27.

This was a disappointing report, as Bloomberg consensus was expecting a 1% monthly gain. The Eurostat press release reports new orders by country and production type only(capital, consumer, intermediate, durable, and nondurable). However, I look at the origination of orders by region: domestic, non-domestic extra-euro (which is the same as non-domestic for the Euro area as a whole), and non-domestic intra-euro.

The idea is, that with ubiquitous fiscal austerity, Euro area countries rely on external demand for growth. So here’s my question: how’s Spain to survive? (more after the jump)

Exhibit 1: Spain’s industrial sector is barely growing amid fiscal austerity

No industrial production growth = a big problem. It’s not just fiscal austerity, per se, it’s that the economy needs plenty of nominal income gains to improve the cyclical budget deficit in order to even see the benefits of structural adjustment. The structural balance cyclically adjusts the government deficit (or surplus) for non-structural items to leave just the structural deficit (net spending on pension payments, unemployment insurance, normal capital expenditures, etc.).

Without growth to increase nominal revenues, the negative cyclical balance will keep the overall balance very much in the red. Spain needs growth! Apparently, it’s not coming from the industrial sector.

Spain was deriving quite a bit of industrial demand from within the Eurozone (the red line in the chart above) through the end of September 2010; however, that source of order growth is tapering off. Now, it seems that extra-euro industrial orders growth (the green line) may start a sideways trend, too. Normally I wouldn’t put too much stock in one data point – but with tightening across Asia and possibly the UK (not the US for a bit), slower orders growth is inevitable.

Exhibit 2: The German industrial machine

The German machine is also deriving industrial production growth from extra-euro orders. Notably, too, domestic orders have been strong. But for all of the talk about Germany’s overheating export sector, industrial production is still near 6% below its Q1 2008 level.

And finally,

Exhibit 3: The poster child for fiscal austerity, the UK.

Why? Because they’re nominal exchange rate depreciated quite markedly, allowing the trade-sensitive industrial base to find a very shallow bottom. On a trade-weighted basis, the British pound is 24% lower than in mid-2007, according to the JP Morgan nominal effective exchange rate index.

I’d like to hear how you all think that Spain’s going to get through this as the ECB raises short-term rates (for those of you who do not know my Euro-centric commentary, you can see a list of my recent commentary on the Eurozone, which includes articles on the ECB by my name on the AB sidebar), Germany slows, the US struggles to keep the consumer alive, and emerging Asia tightens its belt.

Spain’s a trillion dollar economy, and the fourth in terms of GDP in the Eurozone…

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , , , Comments (3) | |

It’s not structural unemployment, it’s the corporate saving glut

Mark Thoma rightly points out the hypocrisy of the deficit hawks’ intent to cut spending while approving military spending in the same sentence. Ryan Avent furthers the dicussion by stating that Washington has used the ‘dire fiscal’ rhetoric to sell short-term cuts that were unwarranted, given that the fiscal problems are structural in nature.

Me, I’d argue that the fiscal deficit is simply the consequence of corporate America’s excess saving: the corporate saving glut - no I didn’t mean the ‘global saving glut’. Furthermore, the corporate saving glut is manifesting itself into the labor market, creating high and persistent unemployment. Some economists are wrongly referring to this as higher structural unemployment.

Exhibit 1: The 3-sector financial balance model demonstrates that elevated excess private saving (firms and households) keeps the government deficit in the red. For a discussion of the 3-sector financial balances, see Scott Fullwiler and Rob Parenteau; and I’ve written on this as well.

The excess saving rate for the public sector, external sector, and household sector is constructed using the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds accounts as: (Gross Saving – Gross Investment)/GDP. The excess corporate saving rate is the residual of the Current Account (external saving) net of government and household excess saving. If the corporate excess saving rate is positive, then investment spending falls short of asset purchases (financial or tangible).

* In Q4 2010, the household excess saving rate dropped to +3.5% of GDP
* In Q4 2010, the government excess saving rate dropped to -10.4% of GDP
* In Q4 2010, the current account deficit dropped to -3% of GDP
* In Q4 2010, the corporate excess saving rate jumped to 3.9% of GDP – this is the Corporate Saving Glut because while firms are investing, they’re saving more, thereby breaking the positive feedback loop.

The positive feedback loop remains broken: higher demand increases sales rates, revenues and production which grows firm profits that are translated into wage and income gains, only to drive demand further upward. It’s broken right between ‘grows firm profits’ and ‘translated into wage and income gains’.

The funny thing is, too, that economists sell this broken feedback loop as rising structural unemployment. Actually, unemployment is not structurally higher, it’s that when firms do not reinvest corporate profits, the lack of income flow manifests itself into the unemployment rate.

Exhibits 2 and 3. It’s not structural unemployment, it’s the corporate saving glut!

The chart below illustrates a simple univariate regression of the unemployment rate on the corporate saving glut. The correlation is very strong, 85%, and suggests that the structural unemployment rate is less than 5.8%. Furthermore, while the unemployment rate seems to be perpetually higher than normal (the upper-right circle), that perfectly coincides with a high corporate saving glut.

If the corporate excess saving glut just equaled zero, i.e., firms invested and saved at the same rate, the unemployment rate would be 5.8%. Now, if the corporate saving glut fell below zero to -2%, i.e., firms reinvested in the economy by way of capital investment in excess of saving, the simple model implies an unemployment rate of 4.7%.

The government doesn’t need to add jobs, per se, the government needs to figure out how to get corporate America to drop the saving glut and re-invest in the economy.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (60) | |

It’s lonely at the top: now it’s up to the Bank of Japan to hold the yen down

Wow, FX space is totally rattled this week: the yen hit 76.25 against the dollar at the end of the day on March 16 and has since rebounded to current levels 80.90 (1:50pm in NY on 3/18). What happened over this time span? Mass speculation on yen appreciation due to earthquake-related repatriation, followed by technical levels being hit that drove the yen up against the dollar, and a collapse of the dollar against the yen (spike downward in the chart below). And then yesterday the G7 central banks (the Bank of Japan, Bank of England, European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Bank of Canada) agreed to coordinate a weak-yen effort. Today the yen is off 2.7% against the dollar.

Note: In the chart above, a decline in the USD/YEN is an appreciation of the Japanese yen and a depreciation of the US dollar. The chart above illustrates the daily fluctuation of USD/Yen since the Tōhoku earthquake on March 11.

The coordinated depreciation of the yen against its major trading partners is ‘concerted’, and such an effort has not occurred since September 2000 when the G7 bid up the euro. The yen effort is very different, as I’ll explain below. Furthermore, ongoing weakness in the yen against the rest of the G7 currencies depends on further actions by the Bank of Japan into next week and beyond.

Some thoughts:

* In 2000 the wedge between the eurodollar spot and its PPP estimate of fair value diverged throughout the year. The spot rate became increasingly undervalued, hitting a wide in October 2000 (according to Bloomberg estimates of PPP). This seems to be a traditional initial condition for intervention. In contrast, though, the USD/YEN spot is seriously overvalued according to a similar measure of PPP fair value. I should note that currency fair value is a contentious topic. (more after the jump)

* The NY Fed makes available balances through 1999 only, so I am unable to ascertain the impact on the Fed balance sheet of the coordinated efforts from the 1987 Louvre Accord nor the 1985 Plaza Accord . I digress. In the 2000 effort, the euro bottomed in 9/21 at 0.8460 in dollars during the day, reaching an intra-day high of 0.8992 on 9/22. The closing impact of the G7 coordination was roughly a 2.7% appreciation of the euro against the USD. Efforts, however, were quickly retraced (see chart below).

* We are already there in yen space: the yen is down 2.7% in just one 24-hour session. It’s likely that this effort lasts throughout next week, since (1) a retrenchment of the dollar would challenge global central bank credibility, and (2) the statement is more explicit in its mention of “readiness to provide any needed cooperation”.

* In 2000 the Fed purchased roughly 10% of its stock of euro holdings, or $1.3 bn worth of euros (see second table below). Using 2000 as a guide, this would imply that the Fed purchases roughly $2.3bn this time around. However, given the size of the ‘model’ trading flows and technical barriers, this time’s flows are likely to be bigger. We’ll see in coming months when the Fed releases its FX holdings update.

* There is a limit to the Fed’s buying of yen, since the Fed is selling yen assets. The Fed and the Treasury (the Fed manages two accounts of FX holdings, the SOMA and ESF account for the Treasury) hold $23 bn in yen-denominated assets (see second table below) – that’s an absolute upper bound on purchases, although FX swaps do allow some room for maneuvering (although I find it very unlikely that the Fed would print currency for this effort). In 2000, the Fed purchased roughly $1.3 bn euro – that number should be at least doubled this time around, given that FX markets are bigger now. In comparison, Wall Street estimates that the BoJ bought $12bn-$40bn..

If there’s going to be succes, it depends on the Bank of Japan’s flows, not those of the other central banks.

My take is that given the size of today’s move, the 2000 effort was not nearly as concerted as has been demonstrated thus far. Next week will be interesting. The goal, I guess, is to get the currency back into a range that will not be prone to technical bounces. I think that the BoJ’s going all in.

Rebecca Wilder

Chart and Table Appendix:

Eurodollar in 2000

FX holdings in 2000

FX holdings in 2010

Tags: , , Comments (13) | |

Q4 2010 Flow of Funds: Household leverage down, wealth effect dead, and equities surge

The Federal Reserve released the Q4 2010 Flow of Funds Accounts for the US. On the household balance sheet, net worth (total assets minus total liabilities) was estimated at $56.8 trillion, which is up $2.1 trillion over the quarter. Notably, household net worth has increased $6.4 trillion since the recession’s end (Q2 2009). Moreover, personal disposable income increased another $918 billion over the quarter, which dropped household leverage (total liabilities/disposable income) 1.1% to 116%.

Personal saving as a percentage of disposable income rose markedly in Q4 2010 to 10.9% (based on the BEA’s measurement of saving using flow of funds data – see Table F.10, lines 49-52).

The chart above illustrates the the wealth effect – the wealth effect is the propensity to consume (save) as wealth increases/decreases. In the Flow of Funds data, this is best approximated by the ratio of net worth (wealth) to disposable income. In Q4 2010, wealth rose 0.15 times disposable income to 4.9, while the saving rate surged 6 pps to 10.9%.

I conclude from the near-term times series illustrated above, that the wealth effect is very weak, and the incentive to save outweighs the desire to consume one’s wealth. Better put: households are increasing consumption, but that’s due to increased income not wealth.

Of note, since 1997 the volatility of household net worth to disposable income is near 2.5 times that which preceded 1997. Households are fed up; and at least for the time being, the positive wealth effect may be effectively dead.

As an aside, I put something out there: the ‘measure’ of saving is becoming increasingly unreliable. Spanning the years 2008-current, the average discrepancy between the Flow of Funds measure of saving and the BEA’s measure of the same definition of saving (the NIPA construction) is more than 2 times what it was in the 2 years leading up to the recession. This is worth more investigation; but historically, the FOF measure (the change in net worth) has been more reliable.

Breaking down household assets from liabilities, you see what’s driven most of the cumulative gain in net worth: financial assets, which are up near 16% since the recession’s end. During the recovery to Q4 2010, pension fund assets are up 22%; mutual fund holdings gained 32%; and here’s the Fed’s baby, corporate equities (stocks) surged 41% (and more, of course, since this data is truncated at December 2010). Credit market instruments are up 6%.

The asset gains outweigh the drop in liabilities, as mortgages and consumer credit have dropped near 4% and 2%, respectively, since the end of the recession. Consumer credit is making a comeback, though, growing 1% over the quarter, while households continue to reduce mortgage liabilities.

I will comment sometime over the weekend or next week about corporate excess saving, which also is constructed using the Flow of Funds data.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (10) | |

It’s pretty obvious how China can achieve its top economic priority of price stability

Premier Wen Jiabao made stabilizing prices China’s top economic priority for 2011. Amid the surge in world energy costs, this story didn’t make the front page. However, Chinese policymakers did take their time spent out of the limelight to allow the Chinese yuan to appreciate roughly 0.3% against the US dollar.

Chinese inflation is elevated and near 5% (4.9% is the official rate as of January 2011). I understand that China’s growth adjustment will take time; but if you’ve got unwanted inflation, then domestic policy is too loose (fiscal or monetary). And in this case, it’s the monetary policy that’s too loose – that goes for both currency and rates policies.

On the rates front: there’s a very frothy feel in domestic asset markets, specifically the property market. Low rates and easy money have sparked a(nother) property boom in China, one that policymakers are trying to tamp down. The Economist published a recent article to the point.

But it’s going to take much, much more than raising down payments and reserve requirements to shore up demand for risk assets. I mean, it really doesn’t take a genius to see that real rates are entirely too low. What’s the investment strategy here: nominal GDP is expected to grow at a 11% in 2011 (according to Economic Intelligence Unit, no link), while the lending rate is just 6.06%. There’s no rocket science here: money’s entirely too easy and inflationary pressures are there.

Furthermore, deposit rates are too low and capping domestic consumer demand. Rates need to rise.

On the currency front. Although there’s been some appreciation in the nominal currency, the yuan, Chinese policymakers only recently allowed their currency to fluctuate at all (again) on an annual basis (see chart below). Notice how the annual appreciation was near 0% spanning Q3 2009 to Q4 2010 (October). Since the central bank doesn’t fully sterilize the inflows of foreign currency from export sales, the depressed nominal rate on the yuan feeds through to the economy via inflation.

Inflation is rising, which is perking up the Chinese real exchange rate. In January 2011, the trade-weighted real effective exchange rate appreciated at a 4% annual rate (according to the JP Morgan Index). The real exchange rate takes into account the nominal rate plus shifts in the purchasing power of the domestic currency, as measured by relative price fluctuations.

The chart illustrates that the nominal exchange rate is now gaining traction on an annual basis, since the Chinese government halted its movement against the USD in 2009. I suspect that the nominal momentum will continue to grind upward throughout this year in order to temper some of the inflationary impetus coming from outside its borders (like Fed policy). But as I said before, it’s Chinese policy that’s too loose at home.

The problem is, that Chinese policymakers want to rein in accommodative policy without raising rates too much because they don’t want the currency to appreciate markedly and are unable to fully sterilize all the flows. Inflation results.

If Chinese policymakers question how to achieve their top economic priority, price stability, then the answer to this self-induced problem is pretty obvious: significantly raise rates and the value of the currency.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (11) | |

Evidence says the ECB is overreacting

Earlier this week I argued that the ECB’s inflation target of just below 2% is too simplistic, especially during periods of supply-side price shocks: energy, food, VAT hikes. Here’s a menu of reactions to the ECB’s announced rate hike (Trichet used the phrase ‘strong vigilance’, which historically is a leading indicator of a rate hike in the following month): Paul Krugman calls it ‘madness’; David Beckworth sports the ‘black eye’ metaphor; Kantoos is somewhat more explicit in his language; and Warren Mosler goes for the Disney theme.

And then I see that one of my favorite blogs, the Eurointelligence blog, interprets the policy response as warranted in the face of an ‘overheating’ export sector. From Eurointelligence:

(It is our interpretation that the ECB is very keen to drive up the euro’s exchange rate against the dollar to reduce the commodity price shocks, and to reduce the overheating in the export sector. This is why the ECB was keen to signal this interest rate as early as possible, to underline the transatlantic policy gap. We don’t think the ECB intends to hike interest rates to very high absolute levels, though we consider a 2% year-end rate realistic.)

RW: My initial reaction was: what? Am I missing something here? Is the ECB right to be strongly vigilant? Is the export sector (1) overheating? and (2) therefore unmooring Eurozone inflation expectations?


Exhibit 1: Real exports are 1.5% below the pre-crisis level (1H 2008). No overheating there. Based on the chart below, whose data are from Eurostat, I’d even argue that there is a possible stagflationary scenario on the horizon if investment doesn’t pick up.

If it’s not the export sector, perhaps it’s a broader impetus to prices driven by services and consumption goods. No.

Exhibit 2: The chart below illustrates the diffusion of HICP inflation (the ECB’s target inflation index, which is a consistent measure of inflation across the 17-member currency union). I calculate the diffusion index to measure the breadth of prices that are rising at a rate of 2%: > 50 and there’s a larger share of sub-components prices increasing at a greater than 2% annual rate, or
The breadth of Eurozone 2% price gains is very low, 31, or 31% below its historical average (45).

We know that headline inflation is estimated at 2.4% in February, or about 0.4% above the ECB’s comfort zone – perhaps that’s passing through to inflation expectations.

Exhibit 3: The chart below illustrates near-term Eurozone inflation expectations, as measured by the 5-yr inflation swap. (Note: and inflation swap is a market security that allows an investor to hedge against inflation by paying a fixed rate and receiving inflation-linked interest payments in exchange). According to the swap market, inflation expectations are priced at 2.151%; this appears well-anchored especially compared to the 2007 period when it drifted upward.

Another measure of inflation expectations, the ECB’s Survey of Professional Forecasters, sees inflation peaking in 2011 at 1.9%. No unmooring of inflation expectations there.

Related to the chart above, perhaps the ECB is looking at the sharp upward trajectory of inflation expectations in the swap market since October 2010 as unhealthy. No. That trajectory in inflation expectations is just a re-emergence of normalized inflation expectations, as the Fed worked to re-establish the US price trajectory. Global inflation expectations turned from drifting downward to a trend rate. Then perhaps it’s that Eurozone inflation expectations are outpacing those in other developed economies. Again, no.

Exhibit 4: The chart below illustrates the 5y5y forward break even rates of inflation for the US, UK, and the Eurozone, which is from page 84 of the ECB’s February (yes, this month) monthly Bulletin. The Eurozone is definitely the laggard here!

My interpretation of these statistics – and yes, there are many ways to measure inflation – is that the ECB is overreacting to the inflation pressures coming from commodity prices, energy prices, and VAT hikes. The liquidity squeeze is afoot.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (2) | |

It’s pretty simple: the ECB’s now in hiking mode

I WAY underestimated the simplicity of ECB policy. I think that the terse monetary policy objective explains quite well the ECB’s announced stance on policy today:

The primary objective of the ECB’s monetary policy is to maintain price stability. The ECB aims at inflation rates of below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.

Today the ECB announced that it would keep the refi rate unchanged at 1%, however, Trichet made it quite clear that rate hikes at the next meeting cannot be ruled out (rather should be ruled in). The market response was pretty strong: bond markets are now pricing in 75 basis points of rate hikes this year, which would take the refi rate to 1.75% by the end of 2011; the euro’s close to breaking the 1.40 mark; and the 2-year yield is 13 basis points higher on the day.

The trigger, in my view, was the ECB’s increased inflation projection:

The March 2011 ECB staff macroeconomic projections for the euro area foresee annual HICP inflation in a range between 2.0% and 2.6% for 2011 and between 1.0% and 2.4% for 2012.

The fact that the ECB is now projecting 2012 inflation upwards of 2.4% , which exceeds by leaps and bounds their 2% target in ‘ECB talk’, implies that the committee sees the medium-term outlook on inflation as seriously biased toward the upside. For the ECB, this means policy is way too accommodative.

Let’s step back a moment, though. Despite the ‘strong’ growth in the Eurozone, Germany, the largest Eurozone economy, has not fully recovered it’s GDP lost during the recession. As of Q4 2010, GDP remains 1.4% below its 2008 peak.

In my view, the ECB’s policy objective is too simplistic. During times of supply-side inflation shocks to food and commodities (i.e., wheat droughts or Middle East unrest), headline inflation overestimates the true impetus to prices.

Core and service prices are still very muted, while it’s goods prices that’s driving the price spikes.

It’s up to global growth now to see Eurozone growth through further. Better put: the Eurozone remains overly exposed to global growth shocks.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (4) | |

Trichet and King: it’s energy, VAT, and food!

The global inflation picture is heating up. On Google, a search of ‘inflation’ spanning the month of February 2011 gets 311,000,000. For one year ago, the same search parameters yielded 1,850,000 hits. Inflation’s on the monetary policy makers’ minds. But why? In the developed world, it’s a food and energy story!

Seriously, look at German and US inflation since the 1960′s. Furthermore, check out core price pressures:

US 0.95% in January 2011…

…Germany 0.77% in January 2011

Dear Trichet, King, and part of the US FOMC: it’s energy and food….energy and food….energy and food…and VAT! David Beckworth writes a great piece about the merits of inflatin targeting.

Wheat, corn, soybean, and sugar prices have surged, whose price gains are now sitting very much on the back burner to oil prices. But look, wheat, soybean, and sugar price pressures are coming down. Therefore, food prices are showing signs of peaking. This should be taken into account when the ECB and BoE meet this week and next, especially if gas and fuel prices start to hinder economic growth prospects.

Some evidence:

* In the UK, price pressures are ever-present – the diffusion is much higher than in other European economies – but it’s very likely that prices peak. The economy’s been hit by a VAT hike twice in the last two years, and the depreciation of the nominal exchange rate continues to pass through to prices. Fiscal austerity will drag aggregate demand and prices – just hold on.
* In Germany, the domestic measure of consumer prices is expected to mark a 2.05% annual pace in February (1.96% in January), but the core level is growing a just a 0.77% annual rate (in January, which the latest available data point). For now, and probably throughout the rest of the year until union contracts reset on an aggregate level, it’s really all food and energy there.
* And in the US, core inflation is rising, but that’s primarily based on the re-emergence of the micro-pressures that are owner’s equivalent rent AND food and energy. Core inflation is now rising again (see recent Calculated Risk article), however, in my view, there’s not enough leading evidence to suggest that inflation expectations have in any way become unmoored. Unit labor costs, for example, remain submerged below a sea of economic profits (more on that tomorrow – but you can see a previous post on the subject here).

Watch monetary policy closely. The oil inflation may simply be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some, since food prices have been headed north for some time. Key central banks shouldn’t hike – UK and ECB are notable examples – but they may.

I, consequently, still ‘hope’ that the recent hawkish rhetoric coming out of the ECB is simply a reflection of the hole that is the appointee to run the ECB after Trichet leaves in October. More bluntly put: they’ll say anything to get the job. (See Eurointelligence’s case for Mario Draghi.)

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , , , Comments (10) | |

Based on the German inflation print, the ECB may be less ‘hawkish’ next week than people think

Today the German Federal Statistics Office reported that the February Consumer Price Index is expected to mark a 2.0% (2.047% by my calculations, which is very close to a rounded 2.1%) annual pace in February 2011.

This is simply a ‘flash’ print, and the Statistics Office was very careful to discount the fact that inflation continues to be driven by energy. But the harmonised index of German consumer prices (HICP) increased a greater than expected 2.2% over the year, suggesting upward pressure to the headline Eurozone rate remains in play. Market participants are expecting ECB rate hikes this year – there are currently at least 2 hikes priced in through this year – based on an elevated Eurozone inflation rate, currently estimated at 2.4% in January.

The ECB is a devout inflation targeter (see first chart of this post); it’s a central bank that raised rates late in 2008 only to see Eurozone inflation plummet as the economy dropped into recession (see chart below). But I think that the ECB will be less hawkish than expected next week, because I’m noticing an interesting correlation between German-based inflation (supposedly not relevant, per se, to ECB policy), Eurozone HICP inflation (the ECB’s target rate of inflation), and the refi rate.

(Note that the ECB targets a weighted composite of harmonised index of consumer price inflation (HICP), rather than a composite of the domestic price indices. You can read about the measurement differences between domestic CPI and Eurostat’s Harmonised CPI here.)

The chart illustrates the German CPI, the German harmonised measure of the CPI (HICP), Eurozone HICP inflation, and the ECB’s policy rate. There are three things that jump out at me as relevant for ECB policy expectations: (read more after the jump!)

(1) The correlation between Eurozone HICP inflation is stronger with domestic German inflation (CPI) than with the German harmonised measure of inflation: 59% vs 88%, respectively.
(2) Related to number (1), the ECB policy rate appears to be driven more by the domestic measure of German inflation (CPI) rather than its harmonised measure. At least in the 2008 energy bubble, the German harmonised rate of inflation was falling well before the ECB hiked the refi rate.
(3) Therefore, it is possible, that with German CPI printing at a lower rate than the harmonized measure, currently 2.05% vs. 2.23%, market participants who expect a very hawkish ECB statement next week may be disappointed (the ECB announces its policy rate next week).

The exact reason for (1) is worth exploring.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , , Comments (3) | |