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

Eurozone rebalancing depends on German inflation

The Federal Statistics Office reported that German consumer prices increased 0.2% on a seasonally-adjusted basis in October, translating into a 1.3% annual gain on a harmonized basis. German prices are very sticky, since the domestic economy doesn’t see the boom and bust cyclical behavior like that in other developed economies. However, inflation may headed north, especially if the trend in industrial prices (PPI), a +3.8% annual clip, is any leading indicator. (Click on chart to enlarge.)

Will German policymakers see the inflation for what it is? It’s a shift in relative prices to drive real German appreciation in order to rebalance current accounts across the region amid a fixed currency regime.

The Eurozone region is now characterized by current account imbalances, imbalances that are now being addressed through fiscal austerity measures. According to the IMF October 2010 World Economic Outlook, Germany will run the second largest current account surplus in the Eurozone as a percentage of GDP this year (second to Luxembourg), 6.1%, while Greece and Portugal will run the largest deficits, -10.8% and -10%, respectively. Among the bigger economies, Spain’s 2010 current account deficit sticks out at -5.2% of GDP. In fact, just 6 of the 16 Eurozone economies are expected to run current account surpluses in 2010.

If these fiscal austerity measures are to succeed in Europe, the hardest hit economies – Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece – must generate income externally via export growth. In order to gain export growth, competitiveness must be drawn upon in one of three ways (or a combination): (1) the nominal exchange rate depreciates in the debtor countries (CA deficit countries); (2) final goods prices fall in the debtor countries relative to the creditor countries; or (3) unit labor costs fall in the debtor countries relative to the creditor countries. Any combination of the three will shift the real exchange rate in favor of the debtor countries and drive export growth.

Since (1), depreciation of the nominal exchange rate, is clearly not an option in the single-currency Eurozone, it’s up to (2) and (3). I’ve talked about wage-cutting; and most of the fiscal austerity packages include some degree of public sector wage cuts, so I won’t address that here. And point (2) has been addressed mostly via fiscal austerity dragging price pressures domestically, and leading to increased competitiveness. But point (2) can be seen from another light…

…it’s all about relative prices, and inflation in Germany realtive to the debtor countries can establish competitiveness in debtor countries.

German inflation is important for two reasons.

First, it’s all about relative prices (point 2 above), so competitiveness in Spain, for example, could similarly be generated if German inflation rises relative to that in Spain, holding Spanish inflation constant – even more so if Spain’s inflation rate is falling . In fact, a rather stark increase in German inflation is likely needed to generate a rebalancing effect when nominal depreciation is out of the question (as is the case for the Eurozone).

On to the second reason why German inflation is important: the ECB average inflation target.

The table to the left illustrates the compounded annual rate of inflation (CAGR) for each of the current member Eurozone economies since 2000. Germany has, on average, seen prices rise at a 1.7% annual rate, while Spain has seen prices rise at a 2.9% annual rate.

Amid fiscal austerity, German inflation is needed is to keep the ECB’s target average inflation rate– the average inflation rate is the weighted HICP across all of the Eurozone economies – around 2% while the much of the Eurozone experiences disinflation (or deflation).

Spanning 2000-2009, the Spanish economy contributed roughly 0.4% to the Euro area’s average 2.1% annual inflation (based on the HICP country weight, which is 12.6% – see the Eurostat publication for links to the data). Greece contributed roughly 0.1%, on average, to overall inflation. Going forward, there will be a lot of inflation slack to be picked up as these economies contract further.

It’s gotta be Germany!

But will German policymakers and its massive export sector tolerate higher average annual inflation? Let’s say at roughly 3%, and for some time? I’m skeptical – so the outlook for the Eurozone, in my view, has just worsened.

Rebecca Wilder

By the way, I just told my German husband, Herr Wilder, about this article. You know what his response was? “Oh…Germans don’t like inflation.” Enough said.

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According to bond markets, Ireland is not yet Greece

A few articles regarding the bond crisis in Ireland:

The Irish Mess (IV)
ECB buying of Irish bonds ‘vital’ support
The world backs away from Ireland, Spain, Portugal
In keeping with Halloween, here’s a scary one
EU leaders trigger another bond market crisis
Ireland fifth best place to live (a separate issue, of course)

Yves Smith’s article (first link) is good, providing a network of associated links including one to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. He states the following:

Yes, Ireland is fully-funded until April – and has another €12bn in pension reserves that could be tapped in extremis – but that is less reassuring than it looks. The spreads over German Bunds are mimicking the action seen in Greece in the final hours before the dam broke.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s article is well worth a read; but I’d like to talk about bond markets for just a bit. Yes, the probability of Irish default is increasingly being priced into bond markets; however, Irish bond market conditions have not yet reached those of Greece in May 2010 (the bailout announcement), nor are they really close…yet.

The Irish yield curve (proxied by the 10-year government bond yield minus the 3-year government bond yield, now the 3-10) is still positively sloped. (I choose the 3-10 because of the ESFS that is in place through 2013.)

This is important. See, when there is a binary outcome being priced into a sovereign bond market, default or no default, investors go straight to the long end of the term structure, and the yield curve inverts (negative slope). In a default situation, the longer end of the curve offers a higher expected return where the potential yield compression is much larger. That’s what happened in Greece in May 2010, as the 10-yr bond yield reached 12.4% on May 7.

The two yield curves look “similar”; but Greece’s yield curve turned negative, or near -500 basis points (bps) inverted – a basis point is the % * 100 – preceding the bailout. At the time, Irish spreads (chart above) dropped to 120 bps; but now the yield curve is even steeper, 170 bps as of 6am this morning.

The 3-yr Irish spread over German bunds is certainly coming under pressure, 492 bps (as of 6am today). But the front-end sell-off is nothing compared to that in Greece: spanning the period April 1 to May 1, 2010 (i.e. excluding the surge to 1700 bps), the 3-yr Greek spread over German bunds averaged 711 bps.

Further, the Irish debt profile is longer, on average, than that in Greece. The weighted average maturity on existing Irish debt is 6.1 years (starting in 2011), where that in Greece is a shorter 4.5 years.

The chart above illustrates the share of Irish and Greek debt by maturity date. 36% of Ireland’s sovereign debt expires through 2015, just half the share of Greek sovereign debt maturing by the same year, 70%. Note, too, that according to Bloomberg, Greece has 3 times the debt outstanding of Ireland – a completely different game (for now).

Irish bonds are certainly under pressure. But Ireland being funded until the middle of next year is important, making the timing of its return to market critical.

In my view, though, the quintissential issue is the government’s ability to finance its debt via domestic growth. Here’s a great paragraph from an op-ed in the Irish Independent last week:

While interest rates charged to Ireland have been rising sharply, many large countries can borrow at very low rates, as little as three per cent. Many economists have been arguing recently that these countries should consider a further fiscal stimulus package. Instead most of them are committed to deficit reduction. This debate is one that we cannot join, unfortunately. These countries have a choice since it appears that they could borrow more if they chose to do so.

We cannot do that, nor can we devalue our exchange rate, since we do not have one. It is perfectly reasonable to ask how we got into this mess, to allocate blame and to demand retribution. But no amount of ranting can expand the limited range of choices available to the Government.

Ireland needs revenues to finance their debt. We’ll see if the persistent fiscal austerity leads to growth – I’m totally skeptical.

Rebecca Wilder

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Comparing the Fed, the ECB, and the BoE before policies diverge

The coming week is G4 central bank week. The Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) announces its policy decision on November 3; the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of England (BoE) will make policy announcements on November 4; and the Bank of Japan pushed forward its November 15-16 meeting to be held now on November 4-5.

At this juncture, G4 ex Japan monetary policy is likely to diverge sharply: the Fed is expected to announce an extension of its asset purchase program, while the ECB and BoE are not expected to increase theirs. In fact, the policy wedge between the three central banks is already wide. Despite the ECB’s enacting its covered bond purchase program, the amount is small, roughly 1.4% of Eurozone GDP (see chart below), and the central bank is sterilizing the flow – sterilizing the operation means that the ECB performs equal and opposite monetary operations to reduce bank reserves by the amount of the bond purchase program.

The chart above illustrates the size of the bond purchase programs (assets sitting on the central bank balance sheet) as a share of 2010 GDP (IMF forecast). Ostensibly, and from a bank-lending point of view, Eurozone financial conditions appear to be “healthier” than those in the UK or US.

The chart above illustrates total bank lending in the Eurozone, UK, and the US; but this may change as austerity measures in some European countries infect the stronger economies via a tightly integrated trade relationship.

Policy is already much tighter in the ECB compared to its US and UK counterparts. This discrepancy is expected to diverge, as the Fed moves into QE2 mode this week.

Rebecca Wilder

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Eurozone unemployment rate up in September

Yesterday Eurostat released the September unemployment rate figures for the European Union and the Eurozone. From the release:

The euro area1 (EA16) seasonally-adjusted2 unemployment rate3 was 10.1% in September 2010, compared with [downward revised] 10.0% in August4. It was 9.8% in September 2009. The EU27 unemployment rate was 9.6% in September 2010, unchanged compared with August4. It was 9.3% in September 2009.

The Eurozone unemployment rate has been above the EU (27) unemployment rate by an average 0.45% since the outset of 2007.

Across the Eurozone 16 countries, just 5 have seen their unemployment rates fall since October 2009 (I use the teilm020 table at Eurostat, which limits the time series to this time frame). Note that the unemployment rate in Italy rose over the month (8.1% to 8.3%), so unemployment rate is now unchanged since last year.

In the third quarter (the 3-month average ending in September 2010), the unemployment rate fell across 57% of the sample listed below (a highlight of the EU (27) countries plus Japan and the US) compared to the previous quarter. This is good, but the improvement is sluggish.

Rebecca Wilder

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A little perspective on the impact that a weaker USD will have on overall economic activity

The Japanese yen, the Eurozone euro, and the British pound have appreciated 16%, 14%, and 9%, against the USD, respectively, since their 2010 lows. Some say that the “US wins” since the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE2) will drive export growth via a weaker dollar. (Note that the Fed has not actually announced QE2, this is all just speculation.)

I’m not suggesting that the stated Fed policy will be to drive down the dollar. What I do know, however, is that the United States production model is not structurally positioned to enjoy the economic panacea that is a persistent debasement of the dollar, neither in the near- nor medium- term.

The bottom chart illustrates the export share in overall economic GDP, as forecasted by the European Commission (you can download this data at the Eurostat website). Notice that the US share of exports, expected to be just 12.3% in 2010, is minuscule compared to the export markets in Europe. So what I gather from a chart like this is that the weak dollar will hurt Europe much more than it will “help” the United States.

We need domestic policy to support full employment and the expansion of our export sector that will eventually arise. See Marshall Auerback’s post this week at Credit Writedowns for a discussion on austerity, currency wars, and exchange rates.

Rebecca Wilder

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A proxy for nominal aggregate demand and payroll growth: Treasury receipts are recovering…

I present an update on aggregate demand using the highest frequency of economic data available, US Treasury tax receipts. Tax receipts serve as a proxy for nominal aggregate demand via a nominal indicator of private payroll growth.

US daily Treasury tax receipts are improving. (This chart has been modified since its original posting to enable reader to click to enlarge).

The chart illustrates the federal deposits of income and employment taxes that are recorded on a daily basis and presented here as the annual pace of the 30-day rolling sum. The red line illustrates the average annual growth rate spanning the period 2005-current.

Since roughly April of 2010, the annual pace of income and employment tax receipts has been above the average, 2.8%. In the third quarter, the annual pace of income and employment tax receipts remained around 4%, consistent with the second quarter pace. Hours and employment are improving, supporting wage gains and higher tax receipts. But more importantly, the pace of tax receipt growth has not faltered, demonstrating ongoing recovery in the labor market and consumer demand.

But it’s not enough. The gains in tax receipts are likely a function of firms adding back hours instead of pumping up the work force. (see my previous post with links on the “hourless recovery“).

The chart above illustrates the cyclical loss from recession and gains during the recovery of private net-jobs (payroll) and aggregate weekly hours (you can see the summary data from the September payroll report here).

Both series found a trough in the third quarter of 2009, which is consistent with the bottom in tax receipt growth (chart above). However, the hours index has recovered quicker than has its payroll counterpart (of course it fell farther, too). To date, both private hours and payroll are 7% short of their values at the peak of the economic cycle.

Receipts are growing, but not vigorously enough to indicate any shift in the current trajectory of payroll growth. Therefore, nominal aggregate demand remains weak. Furthermore, the still-nascent household deleveraging cycle is very likely moving at snail-speed (see this article for a discussion of the link between consumption growth, income growth, and deleveraging for today’s commentary).

Rebecca Wilder

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China’s competitive devaluation

China took the world by surprise on Tuesday by raising bank lending and deposit rates for the first time since 2007. The story is, that restrictive monetary policy (i.e., raising rates) is needed to curb excessive lending, with an eye on mitigating inflation pressures. See this Bloomberg article to the point.

While restrictive monetary policy is needed, raising rates is not the only tool available to policy makers: China could allow their currency (CNY) to appreciate. With support from the fiscal sector, a broad CNY appreciation would improve prospects for global growth ex China via import demand. Instead, the higher domestic rates may crimp domestic demand, perhaps reducing inflation, but contemporaneously lowering import demand.

In my view, China’s move yesterday should be viewed as competitive devaluation: reducing domestic prices in order to capture a competive edge. The currency war, as so-called by Brazil’s finance minister, Guido Mantega, is afoot; and China just confirmed its participation.

Textbook economics says that a central bank cannot have it all: independent monetary policy, a fixed exchange rate, and open financial markets (the impossible trinity). China has a fixed exchange rate (currently, it’s effectively pegged to the USD, see chart below) with tightly monitored capital markets. This means that the Chinese economy effectively matches the “easy monetary conditions” of its counterpart, the US. Monetary policy in China is too loose.

Going forward, further accommodative monetary policy in the US will likewise loosen policy further in China; inflation pressures will be even more robust. But, large-scale asset purchases on the part of the Fed will likewise weaken the USD, which is positive for US exports and negative for US import demand.

All in all, policy makers in China are looking at the USD move with tunnel vision. If the CNY maintians its current trajectory (effectively flat), then any shift in relative prices based on the recent (or future) rate hikes will reduce the CNY real exchange rate (all else equal, of course) – that’s competitive domestic devaluation.

The table has already been set.

Chinese policy makers have slowed the nominal appreciation. Think about what could be if the CNY had maintained its 2005-2008 trajectory, where the CNY appreciated against the USD nearly 20%. Using the compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the same period, where the CNY gained 0.5% on a monthly basis against the USD, the month-end September CNY would be valued 11% higher against the USD than it is now.

They slowed real appreciation, too. The real appreciation of the CNY against its trading partners – the real exchange rate accounts for both nominal appreciation and price differentials across countries – slowed from an average 0.4% monthly gain spanning the period 2005-2008, as measured by the CAGR, to just 0.05% since then. (I use the JPMorgan real exchange rate index, but the BIS makes similar data available free of charge.)

The Chinese authorities are fully aware of the economic value of external demand (exports). The media will say that China’s trying to “cool” domestic inflation by raising domestic bank rates; but that’s not the full story. In my view, what they’re really trying to do is to “cool” domestic inflation in order to shift relative prices and depreciate the real exchange rate, all to gain a competitive advantage in global goods markets.

Rebecca Wilder

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Who’s bringing home the dough?

…Corporations. Since earnings season is now well underway, I decided to look at the breakdown of aggregate domestic income (gross domestic income). Corporate profits are up 44.7% since the outset of the US recovery, while wages and salary accruals are up just 0.9%.

The chart above illustrates the peak-trough losses (total loss), trough-Q2 2010 gains (total gain), and peak-Q2 (relative to peak) deviations of nominal gross domestic income, disaggregated by income type.

First up, wages and salaries (employer contributions for employee pension and insurance funds and of employer contributions for government social insurance) and private enterprises net of corporate profit incomes grew in sum spanning the recession (private enterprises net of corporate profits includes proprietor’s income, which did fall). Furthermore, the drop in wage and salary accruals, -3.6%, was small compared to the drop in corporate profits, -18.1%.

Second, the corporate profit gains during the recovery massively outweigh the wage and salary gains over the same period, 44.7% versus 0.9%. Corporate profits are now 18.5% above the peak in 2007 IV, while wages and salaries hover 2.8% below.

The problem here is, that the deleveraging cycle is heavily weighted on the household sector (the workers at the corporations) – if corporate profit gains do not translate into hiring and wage gains, or even to further capital spending, economic growth will suffer going forward.

Better put, at the very minimum, the recent surge in corporate profits is not sustainable if firms do not distribute the gains to the real economy. Also, meager wage gains does make healthy deleveraging difficult for household sector. Therefore, the recent surge in gross domestic income (hence, it’s spending counterpart, GDP) is not sustainable if corporate profits are not recycled.

Rebecca Wilder

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Who’s saving where? An application of the 3 Sector Financial Balances Map

Dean Baker finds gaping holes in deficit hawk rhetoric using the simple accounting identity that national saving must equal the current account (S-I = CA). If the domestic private-sector’s desire to save is positive, then the only way for the public sector (i.e., government) to net save is for the economy as a whole to run a sizable current account surplus.

Singapore does just that. Spanning the years 2004-2009, the average current account surplus was near 21% of GDP, which enabled the government to run surpluses near 5% of GDP and the private sector to save 16% of GDP. Singapore is a net-saver in all sectors of the economy: private, public, and international. However, it’s Singapore’s huge current account surplus that allows the domestic sector to net save, and not all financial balances are created equally.

Let’s use a slightly different version of Rob Parenteau’s 3 Sector Financial Balances Map to illustrate that not all financial balances are created equally.

The chart illustrates the combination of private and public surpluses (or deficits) that prevail at each of three “zones” of the Balanced Current Account Line (BCAL). The BCAL zones are: CA > 0 to the right of the red line, CA World Economic Report database, October 2010, is used to construct the average 3-Sector Financial Balances Map for the IMF’s Advanced Economies spanning the years 2004-2009. (Note: Singapore, Norway, and Iceland are not illustrated because their respective sector financial balance points lie outside the normal range and distort the map.)

The public-sector financial balance (PubS) for each economy is the IMF’s measure of general government net lending as a percentage of GDP. The domestic private-sector financial balance (PrivS) is the residual of the current account as a percentage of GDP less PubS such that the following identity holds:

PrivS + PubS = Current Account
(please see Rob’s post for further detail on the sectoral balances approach)

In the chart, the four quadrants of public-sector and private-sector financial balances that account for the CBAL zones across the Advanced Economies are:

I. PubS > 0 (public-sector surplus) and PrivS II. PubS III. PubS > 0 and PrivS > 0
IV. PubS 0

The quintessential savers are listed in quadrant III and to the right of the BCAL: Sweden, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, and Singapore (not shown). The classic debtors are listed in quadrant II and to the left of the BCAL: Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and a couple of other Eurozone economies that are not labeled (Cyprus, Malta, and Slovak Republic). Finally, quadrants I and IV list economies that have positive saving in one of the domestic accounts: public (I) or private (IV).

The point is pretty clear: in order for the government to net-save, PubS > 0, either the private sector must dissave and/or the current account must be in surplus. It’s that simple.

Notice that the financial balances of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Greece are in quadrant II and to the left of the CABL. These are averages, and the fiscal deficit worsened markedly in 2009 and 2010 as the private sector incentive to save surged. Currently, though, the fiscal adjustment requirements are huge (deep into quadrant II). For example, Spanish policymakers announced a deficit reduction path to take the PubS
Given that Spain, for example, is starting from a point of hefty private-sector deficits over the last five years, on average, the sole hope for a successful policy tightening lies with external demand growth (the current account). Spain needs massive export income in order to finance such reductions in the government deficits.

So who will succeed in reducing their public fiscal deficits? Pretty much any country with private surpluses has a fighting chance: Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and the US even (on the corporate side). The problem is, that policy makers can’t just tell the private sector to start dissaving. Well, it can, but incentives may be needed.

All else equal, recent FOMC announcements furthered a dollar sell-off, and along with recent disinflation the economy has a fighting chance if policy does move toward austerity. But as Dean Baker suggests, more currency re-valuation is needed.

Rebecca Wilder

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Retraining workers won’t work

Update: one of our readers caught a mistake in the chart. I indexed the data to December 2008, or one year after the recession actually started in December 2007. The statistics that changed are formatted in bold, and the chart in the article has been updated. The analysis doesn’t change at all, but the number of jobs lost during the recession is higher than those indicated in the original article.

From the NY Times, White House Plans Job Training Partnership (bold by me):

As part of efforts to address record-high levels of long-term unemployment, President Obama plans to announce a new national public-private partnership on Monday to help retrain workers for jobs that are in demand.

The national program is a response to frustrations from both workers and employers who complain that public retraining programs frequently do not provide students with employable skills. This new initiative is intended to help better align community college curriculums with the demands of local companies.

“The goal is to encourage community colleges and other training providers to work in close partnership with employers, to design a curriculum where they want to hire the people coming out of these programs right away,” said Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The White House has coined this program Skills for America’s Future. The complication is, that lack of skills is not the problem for the 66% of the labor force aged 25 years and over without a bachelor’s degree. The problem is the lack of jobs.

The chart illustrates the dynamics of employment by level of education through August 2010, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Note that the data are indexed to the onset of the recession, December 2007, where 100 implies that employment is now at its pre-recession level.

The only category to recover employment in full is that requiring a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Furthermore, no material change in employment for BA’s (or higher) has occurred since about a year ago, as indexed employment hovers around 100. No new jobs.

The levels of employment for those workers with the lowest levels of educational attainment, 1. and 2., are 10.2% and 6.6% below pre-recession levels, respectively. That is over 3.5 million jobs.

The White House program is targeted at community college students, or education category 3., some college or associate degree in the chart above. Employment for workers with a community college degree sits over 3.2% below pre-recession levels, or 1.1 million jobs. Retraining workers will not raise the employment level further.

The government needs to “add jobs”, not “retrain workers”, and stimulate domestic aggregate demand.

Rebecca Wilder

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