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

The Most Important Set of Graphics You’ll Find in a BIS Speech

I’m still in catch-up mode, but I keep coming back to this presentation (PDF)—four times now. It’s a speech by BoJ member Masaaki Shirakawa in Tokyo on the 22nd of December last year to the Board of Councillors of Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), entitled “Globalization and population aging – challenges facing Japan.”

Go through the whole thing, but—most especially for U.S. readers—Chart 5.

Pay especial attention to Bank Lending and Housing Prices. Then Riddle Me This, as it were: If U.S. housing prices are stable or basically plateaued overall, then there isn’t a growing decline in credit quality from that sector (the way there was in Japan over the comparable period).

So why is bank lending in the U.S. so low and going lower?

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This Is What You Get When Policy Makers Become Complacent

By Rebecca Wilder 

This Is What You Get When Policy Makers Become Complacent

The prospects for domestic demand in the US are not bright. The labor market barely generates jobs and fiscal policy is a drag. Americans are consuming; but there’s unlikely sufficient nominal income growth to stabilize consumption expenditure growth at current levels.

We’ve seen years where consumption growth outpaced income growth; but those periods of consumption were financed through leverage build – with financial conditions tight, the possibility of financing consumption outside the labor market is deteriorating (see the Banking and Finance section of the latest Fed Beige Book, not encouraging).

Consumption growth cannot outpace income growth indefinitely. Unless we get a true policy kick (by fiscal policy, admittedly), the cyclical recovery could be a thing of the past.

That was nominal growth – in real terms and on a historical basis, the story is just as bad. Don’t let anybody tell you that real consumption growth. At 1.8% Y/Y in August is anything but miserable, especially given that its annual pace is 1 ppt below the long run average, 2.8% Y/Y. Long run real income growth is even worse at 2.5 ppt BELOW the long run average, 2.8% Y/Y.

Uh huh – yes, the US economy has definitely avoided the ‘recession scare’…right. As I see it, the problem with policy these days is not size nor level, rather complacency.

originally published at The Wilder View… Economonitors

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PSA: Mark Thoma, Schlesinger and Jack Otter Answer Questions about the Economy at 2:00pm today (EDT)

From my email (with formatting lost):

Ask the Experts: What’s Next for the Economy?

It’s a big week for the American economy. President Obama announced his plans to reduce the deficit on Monday, and Wednesday afternoon the Federal Reserve announces its new plan to boost growth. Do these proposals make sense? And what do they really mean for your money?

MoneyWatch editors Jill Schlesinger and Jack Otter will discuss in this week’s live “Ask the Experts” webcast. They will be joined by economist and MoneyWatch blogger Mark Thoma.
• Where should you be investing now?
• Will any jobs be created this year?
• Where can you find a job now?
• Has the housing market finally hit bottom?
• What will it really take to restart the American economy?

If you have questions, concerns, or comments send an e-mail to, or join the webcast via our live chat feature.
Don’t miss Ask the Experts on Wednesday, September 21st, 2pm ET / 11am PT.

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US economy in August: moving sideways

With the (roughly) 11% decline in US equities year-to-date, talk of a US recession has resurfaced. Through mid August, the high frequency economic indicators point to further weakness, rather than a double dip.

In my view, whether or not the US is IN a recession – defined as the coincident variables followed by the NBER (.xls) are turning downward – is really a moot point for a good chunk of the working-aged population. It probably ‘feels’ like the economy never exited recession to many.

As an aside, it would be difficult for the US economy to actually ENTER a contractionary phase right now, since the cyclical forces that normally drag the US into recession – inventories, auto sales, and housing – are at severely depressed levels. Confidence (or lack thereof) can reduce domestic spending and investment – it’s in this respect that the losses in equity equity markets are important. It takes time for shocks to work their way into the economic data. Nevertheless, high frequency indicators do not point to recession…for now.

Claims are elevated but ticked up last week. If claims do not fall back in coming weeks, the unemployment rate will rise again. This could indicate the outset of a contracting economy.

Weekly diesel production shows an increase in transportation activity (please see this post for an explanation of the data).

Read More After the Jump!

The demand for diesel (in real barrels per day) recovered, rising at a rate of roughly 15% annually for each of the weeks of July 29 and August 05. Annual growth declined to -3% in the week of August 12; but this series (even in annual growth rates) is highly volatile, and the 4 week moving average of annual growth decelerated only mildly, from 7% to 6%.

Finally, daily Treasury tax receipts are slowing but growth remains positive.

The chart illustrates the annual growth rate of the 30-day rolling sum of daily withholding receipts for income and employment tax payments. This series proxies the health of the labor market. Spanning the last three months, the annual growth rate decelerated to 4% (May 18 through August 18 this year compared to the same period last year) from 4.6% in the three months previous. There’s no indication of a contraction in tax receipt activity, but a further trend downward in the pace of tax receipt gains would turn some heads.

Nothing to indicate a contraction in the high-frequency data; but the deceleration is worrisome, given that consumers must ‘earn’ their consumption rather than ‘borrow’ for consumption. I don’t feel particularly positive about the state of the US economy. Neither does Mark Thoma.

Rebecca Wilder

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The US economy: July’s not looking any better

Next week the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its estimate of Q2 US GDP growth. Of 69 economists polled, the bloomberg consensus is that the US economy grew at a 1.8% annualized rate spanning the months of April to June over January to March. In all, this quarterly growth rate implies just 1.9% annualized growth during the first half of 2011. Not much of an expansion.

Economists have put their ‘hope’ into the second half of 2011. But high frequency data show that the third quarter is setting up to be a doozy as well. This is too bad because we’re talking about jobs and the welfare of American families here.

I like to follow two weekly indicators to get a feel for the labor market and the corporate trucking business. The message is clear: the economy is not improving.

First, the bellwether of the state of the US labor market – weekly initial unemployment claims – continues to disappoint. In the week ending July 16, seasonally adjusted initial claims increased 10,000 to 408,000. The 4-week moving average was 421,250, which is just 19,000 below its May peak of 440,250. This week’s report fell on the BLS’ survey week, so the July employment report is likely to be another weak one (weak is of course a euphemism for the June report).

The chart below illustrates the annual growth rate of the non-seasonally adjusted 4-week moving average of initial unemployment claims. I use this for comparison to the second series, diesel consumption, which is not seasonally adjusted. I include the recession bars for association with the business cycle. Claims really are more of a coincident indicator – but the frequency is helpful for gauging the state of the real economy.

The weekly claims are not indicating a recession – they are contracting on an annual basis. However, the contraction in claims is slowing, -8.4% Y/Y, which is much slower than the average -13% annual drop in claims during the first quarter of 2011. Unless claims start to fall more precipitously, the labor market will continue to be stuck in neutral – not good.

Second, the US Energy Information Administration releases weekly estimates of distillate fuel oil supplied to the end user in thousands of barrels per day (real). This is important because roughly 90% of this number is comprised of diesel fuel.

Given that diesel fuel is a primary input to construction and commercial
and industrial trucking, the weekly series serves as a high-frequency
indicator of domestic demand for goods that are transported across the
country. There are seasonalities to this data , but the message is clear:
demand for diesel fuel suggests that wholesale demand is inherently weakening.

Unlike diesel prices, which can be impacted by number of factors including taxes, refining capacity, and most recently by IEA’s petroleum release, consumption measures absolute demand.

The chart below illustrates the same representation of demand for distillate fuel (primarily diesel) as the annual growth rate of the 4-week moving average. The latest data point is July 15. The annual decline was a bit less severe in the week of July 15 – but this series is quite a bit more volatile, and the downward trend in fuel consumption has been established.

As of last week, these two high frequency indicators demonstrate no marked improvement in domestic demand through July.

Rebecca Wilder

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State and local governments should be listed as a primary risk to the US outlook

I don’t see why the aggregate state funding gap is not numero uno on the ‘risks’ to the US outlook (I usually hear oil, Europe, China, etc., in my line of work). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the State budget gap is not expected to clear at least through 2013. From the CBPP report “States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact“:

Three years into states’ most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, their finances are showing the clearest signs of recovery to date. States in recent months have seen stronger-than-expected revenue growth.

This is encouraging news, but very large state fiscal problems remain. The recession brought about the largest collapse in state revenues on record, and states are just beginning to recover from that collapse. As of the first quarter of 2011, revenues remained roughly 9 percent below pre-recession levels.

Consequently, even though the revenue outlook is better than it was, states still are addressing very large budget shortfalls.

Better put: state revenues are rising more quickly than expected from a low base following the most precipitous drop ‘on record’. Not feeling too confident here.


Whether or not this ‘surge’ will continue depends on the labor market, corporate profits, and retail sales – heck, aggregate demand. There’s an obvious connection between retail sales and state sales tax revenue, and retail sales are weakening. In May, the pace of the 3-month moving average of retail sales slowed to 0.27% (from a peak of 1.09% in October 2010), while that of real retail sales fell 0.11% over the month (raw data here). Lower gas prices will help; but without significant relief in the labor market (from the private sector), the pace of revenue growth is unlikely to be maintained.

It’s not just the states – the health of state and local government’s (or lack of) matters A Lot for the US economy.

On average, state and local governments jointly are the largest single contributor to aggregate compensation in the 1990′s and 2000′s (roughly), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Since 1987, State and Local governments have accounted for an average 13% of total compensation of the US economy. So the outlook for 13% of aggregate compensation essentially depends on jobs growth in these sectors.

The trend for job growth has been decidedly negative for state and local governments. State and local governments have net-fired workers every single month since November 2010.

State and local governments are doing something they’ve not or rarely done before: hinder nonfarm payroll growth. In May 2011 (the latest data point), state and local governments dragged annual total payroll growth by 2% and 20%, respectively. Local government payroll was 11% of the total in May. This is not good.

Federal government support to state and local governments is set to decline significantly next year (see figure 2 on html of CPBB report). So it’s up to the private sector to provide sufficient income growth to offset the likely decline (latest data is 2009) by the giant of aggregate compensation, state and local governments, for years to come. I’m skeptical.

Rebecca Wilder

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Consumption and compensation: explicit and implicit wealth effects in finance

Readers of this blog know that I am in finance, specifically global fixed income. This blog post covers wealth effects in the financial industry, which is a relatively dominant share of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009 and likely higher now (data are truncated at 2009). My view is that economists underestimate the wealth effects on consumption in the financial industry, given that financial wealth affects not only portfolio net worth but also the present value of labor income. Therefore, the sell-off in global risk assets may hit consumption more than expected in coming quarters, given that finance is the fifth largest industry, as measured by total compensation, on average spanning the years 1989-2009.

Why US consumption matters. The outlook for the US economy is of utmost importance to that for the world, given that the US will hold an average 22.1% of World GDP through 2016 (measured in $US), according to the IMF April 2011 World Economic Outlook. And the outlook for the US consumer is of utmost importance to that of the US economy, given that personal consumption expenditures hold a large 71% share of 2010 US GDP. Therefore, holding the US consumer share constant, US consumption is expected to be 15% of the global economy on average through 2016.

How wealth usually matters for US consumption. In economics, one of the drivers of consumption patterns ‘now’ is the wealth effect, usually defined as the shift in consumption due to changes in tangible (home values) and intangible (paper assets, like stocks and bonds) net assets.

(click to enlarge)

(Read more after the jump!)
The chart above illustrates the ‘wealth effect’ on consumption as the ratio of net worth to disposable income (blue dotted line) as it’s correlated to the consumption share (outlays really, see table 1 for the breakdown) of disposable income (green line). The consumption (outlay) share is is 100 less the saving rate.

A large part of the Fed’s quantitative easing program (QE) was targeted at stimulating the positive wealth effects on consumption via higher risk asset prices. I would argue that this has been largely successful to date. The two year moving average of the consumption share (green solid line) fell precipitously following the financial crisis, only to generally stabilize since Q1 2009; this is largely coincident with the outset of QE1.

Back to why I brought up finance. There’s another effect in play here, more specifically related to the compensation structure in the financial industry. See, along with the tangible and intangible net asset values, total wealth includes the present value of labor income, i.e., the present value of lifetime compensation.

For all industries except finance, lifetime income is generally not associated with financial markets and risk assets, except via interest payments on fixed income. However, in finance total compensation is directly impacted by asset values via the bonus structure, often a large part of total compensation. Therefore, when asset markets are challenged, this likely affects the present-value of labor income adversely.

There’s an outsized wealth effect of net asset values in the financial industry: the direct wealth channel (net asset worth) plus the indirect channel (present value of labor income) on consumption.

Why is the financial industry important? It’s pretty simple: financial compensation is a large part of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009, which has grown an average of 6% annually since 1988 in nominal terms. (Note: you can get this data from the BEA’s industry tables).

As financial markets take a turn for the worse – the S&P grew 5.4% December 31, 2010 through March 31, 2011 and is now down 4.1% since March 31, 2011 – the adverse wealth effect is likely to be stronger in the financial industry than in any other industry. For north of 7% of total US compensation, labor income is challenged in expectation, which is likely to drag consumption.

Purely anecdotal evidence. This strong wealth effect exists in my household. Both my husband (equities) and I (fixed income) are in finance; and when markets are challenged, we tend to save more. And it’s not because our stock portfolio is showing holes – actually, we don’t have much of a stock portfolio – it’s because our household income falls in expectation via the ‘bonus’ component of financial salaries.

I haven’t seen any work done on this wealth effect channel – but it does beg the question of whether there will be further downgrades to the US economic forecast if risk assets continue to sell off.

Rebecca Wilder

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Who cares about the unemployed…

…it seems that way, at least, when I listen to much of the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

But it’s not just Washington, it’s Wall Street, too. In my line of work, finance, market participants grapple with the monthly economic data flow, eyeing each release as if it’s telling a new story about the current prospect for US economic growth – that it isn’t just treading water. ‘Consensus’ economists forecast their expectations for the economic release of the day, the market then trades based on the surprise to which the data beat or disappointed expectations. Day in, day out, that’s what we do.

I have a problem with this automated way of viewing the world. It’s tough to hear Wall Street economists defend their forecasts, stating that ‘oil’ or ‘Europe’ are the primary risks to the outlook; or that the structural unemployment rate has risen markedly so that harmful inflation is right around the corner. Step back, take a look at where 2.7% annual growth (current Consensus for 2011) actually gets the US labor market (see chart below).

The biggest risk to the outlook is not oil, it’s unemployment. The longer that the labor market remains idle – in fact, the labor force is now trending downward – the lower will the average skill level will go. Then you’re going to get something much more structural, the so-called positive feedback loop.


People move to the US for the American Dream – I wonder where they’ll go now…. Germany?

The chart above illustrates the harmonized G7 unemployment rates indexed to 2007 for comparability. The latest readings (June mostly) are listed in the legend.

The US labor market, as measured by the unemployment rate, deteriorated much more precipitously than that in any other G7 country. Germany stands out as the sole labor market that’s shown any marked improvement, furthering a trend that started with the the Hartz Concept. (I just did a Google search of the Hartz commission and came across this Economist article written in 2002 – remarkable.)

Policy drives the structural level of unemployment, not the other way around. In the US, there are currently no true boundaries to the supply of labor, rather it’s demand. Congress should be targeting job creation and aggregate demand, not the 2012 elections.

Stephen Gandel is right: there is no upside to high unemployment, just downside. You want to drop the deficit? Create jobs and aggregate demand so that the population ‘can’ pay taxes.

Rebecca Wilder

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