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

Household saving rates in the US, UK, and Germany: (possibly) light at the end of the tunnel

Menzie Chinn at Econbrowser breaks down US import data by sector to argue the following (see entire article here):

What is clear is that consumer goods do not vary that much; now, part of auto and auto parts is going to satisfy consumer demand as well, and here we do have some evidence in support of the hypothesis of the consumer going back to his/her old ways of sucking in imports.

Consumption hardly seems resurgent, so attributing the increase in imports to consumers means that one is assuming a very high share of imports to incremental consumption — something I’m not sure makes sense. So, I think the book is still open on whether the consumer is going to drive the US back into a rapidly expanding trade deficit.

Another way to look at this is by comparing global household saving rates. Specifically, I look at the household saving rates across the US (the world’s largest economy in 2007, as measured in PPP dollars – download the data at the IMF World Economic Outlook database), UK (6th largest economy), Canada, and Germany (5th largest economy). The household saving ratio is calculated as gross household saving divided by personal disposable income, as reported in country National Accounts.

If the global economy is indeed “rebalancing”, then relative to disposable income the big spenders (US, UK) raise saving, while the big savers (Germany) increase spending. In contrast, if the global economy is returning to the pre-crisis “status quo”, then relative to disposable income household saving rate would:

  • fall in the US and UK
  • rise in Germany

(Using IMF data, here’s a chart that I put together last year of consumption shares across economies to illustrate the big spenders and big savers.)

The German household saving rate is rising, while the UK households saving rate is falling. In the US, we’re seeing the household saving rate stabilizing above pre-crisis levels, even increasing at the margin.

The table below lists average household savings rates for the pre- and post-crisis periods. Notably, the average US saving rate more than doubled to 4.8% since the previous 2005-2007 period, while that in the UK increased a much smaller 36% to 4.6%. Notably, German households increased average saving above an already elevated 10.6% average during the business cycle.

So generally, this simple analysis would suggest that Menzie Chinn’s skepticism of a “status quo” of US consumer imports is worthy. But with the status quo firmly in place in Germany, the household saving data paint a foreboding picture – certainly for the Eurozone, but possibly for the global economy as well.

I’m in no way “blaming” this on the Germans – the banking system there will eventually contend with the crappy Greek and Portuguese assets they hold on balance. But didn’t they learn their lesson? Relying on exports makes the economy highly susceptible to external demand shocks.

More on the UK vs US in my next post.

Rebecca Wilder

Note: Clearly, an analysis of this sort would require a much larger cross-section of household saving data. But differing measurement methodologies and data limitations make the comparison too arduous for a simple blog post. For example, Japan is not part of the analysis because only the expenditure approach to national income is available on a quarterly basis.

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Nope, it’s not enough for the weakest of the "Zone"

Spanning the period April 14, 2010 to June 7, 2010, the euro lost 12.5% in value against the $US (this is not a trade-weighted measure of the currency value, but it’ll do). As the currency tumbled, Q2 nominal export income grew quickly over the quarter for the top 5 economies in the Eurozone:

  • Germany, 6%
  • France, 4.6%
  • Italy, 8.3%
  • Spain, 0.8% (definitely the exception to the rule)
  • Netherlands, 7.2%

The export income is welcome in Italy’s economy, one of the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). But what about Greece, or the rest of the PIIGS countries that desperately need the external income?

Well, Greece actually did quite well in Q2: nominal export income was up 5.8% over the quarter compared to a 0.1% decline in Q1. Perfect – that’s the point, right? Nominal depreciation begets external economic support via exports?

It’s not enough. The problem is, that the external support generated by a euro depreciation is too evenly distributed across the “Zone”. The result: those economies with both external and domestic demand posted record growth rates (i.e., Germany), while those with an overwhelming contraction in domestic demand posted further GDP declines amid reasonable external demand growth.

The chart below illustrates the pattern in GDP quarterly growth for Eurostat’s reporting countries, ranked by Q2 2010 growth rates in order of smallest (Greece, -1.5%) to largest (Germany, +2.2%).


It should be noted here that the Eurostat data is a “Flash” report of Eurozone GDP only. The breakdown by spending category will not be reported until the second GDP release, which is scheduled for September 2, 2010. Therefore, the nominal export numbers, which are seasonally and working day adjusted through June 2010 (the volume indexes are only available through May 2010), proxy the strength of external demand.

The interesting thing is that export growth is likely strong enough to keep the third largest (as of Q2 2010) Eurozone economy, Italy, afloat for now. However, oncoming austerity measures (I searched for a list of announced European austerity measures, but only came up with this – do you know a credible source/link?) will drive the positive feedback loop: rising deficits – raise taxes/cut spending – cut domestic demand – taxable income falls – deficits rise.

Rebecca Wilder

Note: I included export data only, although the trade balance, which is exports minus imports, data tells a very similar story: widespread improvement in the trade balance.

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The Fed didn’t announce QE2

Fortune published an op-ed piece by Keith R. McCullough at Hedgeye (h/t to my Mom). He argues (not very well, I might add) that QE2 is the doomsday scenario for “markets”.

I’d like to point out the following (mostly because this is a common mistake): what the Fed announced is NOT QE2. Furthermore, the Fed’s been considering investing options for months now, why the shock and awe treatment from markets?

Here are the FOMC’s announced investment intentions:

…the Committee will keep constant the Federal Reserve’s holdings of securities at their current level by reinvesting principal payments from agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in longer-term Treasury securities.

The Fed announcement is NOT a second version of quantitative easing (QE2). Quantitative easing is a “super” policy response, where the Fed grows its balance through reserve creation and the purchase of (usually) government assets.

The Fed is reinvesting the principal of maturing securities into longer-dated Treasuries from reserves already created. Therefore, the Fed is simply shifting the asset side of the balance sheet toward a Treasury-only portfolio. Reinvesting maturing Treasuries is regular practice for the Fed. No new quantitative easing.

The announcement should not have been a surprise; it wasn’t to me. According to the FOMC minutes, the Fed has been considering investment options regarding the principal of the maturing securities for months now. From the June 22-23 FOMC minutes:

First, the Committee could consider halting all reinvestment of the proceeds of maturing securities. Such a strategy would shrink the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and reduce the quantity of reserve balances in the banking system gradually over time. Second, the Committee could reinvest the proceeds of maturing securities only in new issues of Treasury securities with relatively short maturities–bills only, or bills as well as coupon issues with terms of three years or less. This strategy would maintain the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet but would reduce somewhat the average maturity of the portfolio and increase its liquidity.

The Committee decided to go with the second strategy, but in an altered form: reinvest the proceeds of maturing securities to maintain both the size of the balance sheet and the average maturity of the portfolio. And a few members favored the Fed’s August announcement:

A few participants suggested selling MBS and using the proceeds to purchase Treasury securities of comparable duration, arguing that doing so would hasten the move toward a Treasury-securities-only portfolio without tightening financial conditions.

So you see, the FOMC announcement to buy longer-dated Treasuries is not QE2; is not a surprise; and for reasons that I did not describe here, doesn’t portend economic collapse (see this policy brief, or the working paper, by Randy Wray and Yeva Nersisyan, where they refute the application of the Reinhart and Rogoff findings).

Rebecca Wilder

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The compensationless recovery

New York Times David Leonhardt argues that real wages are rising, so those resilient workers that remain employed will benefit from the bounce-back in “effective pay”. The problem with this insight is twofold: first, the expansion phase of real hourly compensation, a broader measure of total earnings, is falling; and second, sitting atop a mountain of consumer and mortgage debt, the aggregate economy cannot afford a compensationless recovery.

From the NY Times:

But since this recent recession began in December 2007, real average hourly pay has risen nearly 5 percent. Some employers, especially state and local governments, have cut wages. But many more employers have continued to increase pay.

Something similar happened during the Great Depression, notes Bruce Judson of the Yale School of Management. Falling prices meant that workers who held their jobs received a surprisingly strong effective pay raise.

Rebecca: The referenced “real wages” are the real average hourly earnings figures for production and nonsupervisory workers, 80% of the total nonfarm payroll. The broader measure of total earnings is real hourly compensation (see Table A and get the data from the Fred database). Real hourly compensation measures compensation for all workers, including wages, 401k contributions, stock options, tips, and self-employed business owner compensation. (You can see a comparison of the earnings/compensation series in Exhibit 1 here.)

Since December 2007, real hourly compensation has increased just 1.3%. Furthermore, the index declined four consecutive quarters through Q2 2010, a first since 1979-1980. If the NBER dates the onset of the expansion at Q3 2009 (the first quarter of positive GDP growth in 2009), real hourly compensation will have dropped .7% through Q2 2010! That’s pathetic compared to the average 2.5% gain during the first 4 quarters of expansion spanning the previous 10 recessions.

The table lists the gain/loss of real hourly compensation, measured by the BLS, during the recession and early recovery for the business cycle as dated by the NBER.

Here’s how I see it: the problem is not that real hourly compensation is falling during the the recovery, per se, it’s that real hourly compensation is falling during the recovery of a balance sheet recession.

In the context of wage and compensation growth, the NY Times article was misleading in its comparison of the Great Depression to the ’07-’09 Great Recession. Mass default during the Great Depression wiped private-sector balance sheets clean, no debt. But not this time around. We’re going to need a lot of income growth (the BLS measure of real hourly compensation includes measures of income at the BEA) to increase saving enough to deleverage the aggregate household balance sheet.

I’ll say it again: we can’t afford a jobless recovery. Specifically, we can’t afford a compensationless recovery.

Rebecca Wilder
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Another illustration of the struggling US labor market: teen employment

This recession caused a severe disruption in the labor market for teen employment. The chart below illustrates the unemployment rate alongside the employment-to-population ratio for those aged 16-19 years.

The visual is quite striking: at the peak of the business cycle, December 2007, the difference between the employment-to-population ratio over the unemployment rate was roughly 17.3 percentage points (pps). In June 2010, however, the difference narrowed fully to -0.3 pps.


This is a growing problem for our youngest workers. In April, the OECD issued a press release (featuring related research) calling for government support for “youth” unemployment across the member countries:

The report’s message is that governments need to do much more to help young people. Some have benefitted from broader efforts to help the unemployed. But more policies are needed that target young people, especially those with poor education and skills. These “at-risk” youngsters now account for between three and four out of ten of all young people in the OECD and are at risk of long-term joblessness and reduced earnings.

Back in June, the LA Times argued that young workers in the US, workers aged 16-19, are being displaced by college graduates and other skilled workers; in better times these workers would not take jobs normally filled by teenagers.

The recession has been particularly cruel to those aged 16-19. However, the chart above illustrates that the downward trend is both secular and cyclical, as the employment-to-population ratio has trended down since 2000.

At the turn of the century, the employment to population ratio for teens aged 16-19 years was 45% (average over the year), and just 35% in 2007. There’s a problem here. Workers aged 16-19 generally earn low hourly wages (unless they invented Facebook, of course); and in some cases, even the small monthly sum supports family income. And as the OECD report suggests, often young workers do not qualify for unemployment insurance when displaced.

The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finance (2004-2007) indicates that much of the mean income growth is accumulating at the top 10% of the income distribution (Table 1). Spanning 2004-2007, the bottom 20% experienced 3.4% income growth, while the top 10% saw near 20% gains. And every bracket in between saw either negative or near-zero income growth.

Here’s the bigger picture: teen income is likely becoming increasingly important to the families at the bottom of the income distribution, while the jobs are becoming increasingly scarce.

Without entry level jobs, aggregate work experience starts to decline, which translates into lower skill overall; and then productivity declines. Bad stuff.

Rebecca wilder

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The answer is the domestic private sector

Jim Hamilton used the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds data to present a question: who will buy “the additional $8 trillion in net new debt that would be issued over the next decade under the CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario.”

I thought that the analysis was curious and too “partial”. If one believes the deleveraging story, then domestic private saving is going to rise. The answer to his question seems pretty obvious…

Let’s say that consumption goes back back to the 1960’s-style 62% of GDP, then get ready for household Treasury accumulation. Spanning the decade of 1960, households held on average 30% of the Treasury’s liabilities.

A simple example illustrates my point. If the Treasury’s book doubles to $16.5 trillion, and the household share of Treasury holdings rises to 30% – as of Q1 2010 the stock of Treasuries outstanding was just about $8.3 trillion (see L.209 here) – then households will accumulate over $4 trillion of those new Treasuries. That’s just households, and holding all else equal (like financial funds and businesses).

So the answer is: the domestic private sector.

Rebecca Wilder

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Relative employment is shifting

Today Statistics Canada released impressive June employment figures from its Labour Force Survey (LFS). In case you missed it, the April gains, +109,000 new jobs, set a record. And the June gains, +93,000, were nearly as spectacular. (Note: the unemployment rate for Canada in the chart to the left is through May, not June)

Canada’s labor market bounced back fully and then some. Spanning May 2008, when job loss became the norm as the global credit crunch started to take hold, to December 2009, 259k jobs were lost. However, this year through June 2010, the labour market added back 308k jobs, which is +50k new jobs during the expansion or roughly +500k in “US”.

I’m afraid that the US labour market is a far different story. To regain employment lost since June 2008, 6.9 MILLION jobs need to be added back to the employment figures of the current population survey.

I digress. Every time I hear the Canadian statistics, I immediately multiply the statistic by 10 to control for the population differential; thus, +109,000 new jobs in Canada would be equivalent to roughly +1,090,000 in the US, all else equal. In translating the job gains into “U.S”, I understand the magnitude with more clarity – not very different form learning a new language by translating the words in your head.

Is +50k Canadian still equivalent (roughly) to +500k US? The short answer is pretty much – the 2009 US/CAN relative population was just over 9; but in thinking about relative population figures, I stumbled upon a rather remarkable relative employment figure between the US and Canada. The Canadian employment picture has become much much brighter than that in the US over the last decade.

The chart illustrates US employment relative to that in Canada, Germany, and Japan (Germany and Japan are there for comparison). As you can see, employment in the US relative to our neighbor to the North has dropped markedly. There is a secular downward trend in US employment relative to that in Canada.


And it’s not just a population issue. On a population-adjusted basis, the employment figures in Germany, Canada, and Japan are trending upward relative to that in the US – and for Canada, this is a secular trend rather than a cyclical phenomenon.

The US employment picture is fading compared to other developed nations. And remember, Japan and Germany saw near-zero annual population growth spanning the years 2000-2009.

Rebecca Wilder

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Crib notes for G7 unemployment rates

Unemployment rates across the G7 illustrate a broad-based labor recovery. Fantastic – now let’s get to the underlying stories.

(Note: The US is the first to release the June 2010 figures. All other unemployment rates, except for the UK, are current as of May 2010.)

Germany, France, and Italy: Germany’s labor market is ostensibly improving, as the unemployment rate continues its descent. However, don’t be fooled by these statistics: the German government is subsidizing firms to drop hours in lieu of outright layoffs.

And across the Eurozone, fiscal tightening will drive unemployment rates up; look at what fiscal austerity got Ireland.

The United States: Spencer, as usual, gives his insightful take on the US employment release: not good. The real problem is that the US private sector is sitting on an iceberg of debt; and the only way to avoid the economic pain of large-scale default is by dropping leverage via nominal income (wages) growth.

Workers have NO pricing power. How can they when the employment to population ratio dropped 0.2% to 58.5% in June? Note that 58.5% is consistent with a 1970’s-1980’s style labor force with fewer females working. Wages are going nowhere until the labor market improves substantially, and the private sector can’t do it atop the iceberg of debt. We need the government’s help there.

UK: The pace of the labor market deterioration is slowing (not evident in the unemployment rate, which dates to just March, but more evident in the claimant count). However, the unemployment rate is expected to rise as the government’s self-imposed austerity measures are put into play. Furthermore, look for weakening labor conditions to push further default amid big household leverage.

Canada: The labor market is strong as illustrated by the marked improvement in the employment figures. Expansionary policy was very likely too expansionary, and the Bank of Canada has initiated its tightening cycle. The economy is hot right now.

Update: A reader notes that April GDP was released a couple of days before this article published. Indeed the economy posted 0% economic gain in April – not hot over the month. However, the jobs picture remains solid on a month to month basis, as May 2010 employment gains were +25,000 and all (in net) in the “full time” category. Being a small-open economy, much of Canada’s economic outlook depends on external factors, especially the outlook of the US economy.

Japan: The labor market is weak, as most industries posted job losses in May 2010 (access Japanese labor data here).

Rebecca Wilder

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Yield curves in Japan and the US: similar but not the same

Andy Harless presents the case for a double dip (second recession) – I would re-order #1 and #2 on that list – and that for a sustained recovery. #6 of Andy’s case for a sustained recovery (he calls it Case Against a Second Dip) caught my attention, pointing me to an earlier Paul Krugman article about positively-sloped yield curves in a zero-bound policy environment.

In a related article, Krugman argues that a current policy of near-zero short-term rates precludes the lowering further of future short-term rates. Therefore, the steep yield curve reiterates that rates have nowhere to go but up rather than that the economy is expected to improve.

Reasonable; but it was Krugman’s comparison to policy during Japan’s lost decade that got the mental wheels rolling:

Indeed, if we look at Japan we find that the yield curve was positively sloped all the way through the lost decade. In 1999-2000, with the zero interest rate policy in effect, long rates averaged about 1.75 percent, not too far below current rates in the United States.

In my view, current Fed policy is generally more credible than policy undertaken by the Bank of Japan in the early 2000’s. The fed funds target has been near-zero since December 2008; and the new reserve base (liquidity) peaked quickly since the onset of QE and has since remained in the banking system.

Therefore, it would stand to reason that as long as policy remains consistent and big (the latter on the fiscal side is the problem right now), the US yield curve can, in my view, be interpreted as an auspicious sign – all else equal, as they say – as compared to the positively-sloped one in Japan.

Monetary policy in Japan: 1998 – 2006

The Bank of Japan has a solid history of rescinding their own policy efforts. They did it earlier this year; but more importantly their policy announcements spanning the years 1999 to 2006 have on occasion been rather deceiving. Notice that the 2-10 yield curve never became inverted.

The shortened version of the timeline (illustrated in the chart above):

  • From Bernanke, Reinhart, and Sack (2004): “In April 1999, describing the stance of monetary policy as “super super expansionary,” then-Governor Hayami announced that the BOJ would keep the policy rate at zero “until deflationary concerns are dispelled,” with the latter phrase clearly indicating that the policy commitment was conditional.”
  • In August 2000, The BoJ raises the overnight call rate to 0.25%, up from near-zero.
  • In February 2001 the BoJ lowers the overnight call rate to 0.15%.
  • In March 2001, the BoJ announces its quantitative easing strategy, initially targeting current account balances (essentially reserves) at 5 trillion yen and lowered the overnight call rate target to near-zero.
  • Until 2004, the BoJ raises the current account reserve target several times until it peaks at 30-35 trillion yen.
  • In March 2006, the BoJ exits QE.

I concur with Paul Krugman, that the deflation threat is very very real. I do not think that it is completely fair to compare the current US yield curve to that to early 2000’s Japan.

To be sure, the likelihood of rates rising is the only possibility built into the US yield curve right now (no possibility of lower rates); but since the Fed is relatively more credible and consistent, the probability of rates rising is much higher compared to that in early 2000’s Japan.

And the current US curve is steep! The chart below compares the dynamics of the 2-10 yield curve in Japan from its low in 1998 through 2006 to that in the US from its low in 2007 through June 24, 2010.


Rebecca Wilder

Reference for paper in final chart: Luc Laeven and Fabian Valencia (2008), Systemic Banking Crises: A New Database, IMF Working Paper WP/08/224.

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Another blow to the US labor force

The Senate voted down the American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010, 57 to 41 (see an earlier version of the CBO’s estimate here for a breakdown of the Bill). The emergency extensions to weekly unemployment benefits will now expire, leaving many without government support as the labor market improves at snail speed.

Those who support the Bill claim that benefits prop up consumer spending. It is true, that unemployment benefits payments are more likely to be spent rather than saved. However, the latest version of the Bill allocated about $35 billion to benefits, just 0.34% of consumer spending in Q1 2010. Consequently, the direct impact on consumer spending of extending the benefits would have been small. (The provisions of the Bill in full would have quickened the recovery, according to David Resler at Nomura.)

Those who oppose the Bill claim that extending the benefits only increases the duration of unemployment – in May 2010 median duration was 23.2 weeks, its highest level since 1967. This is a weak argument when 7.4 million jobs, near 6% of the current payroll, have been lost since the onset of the recession (this is a cumulative number, which includes the gains since January 2010). The bulk of the unemployed would likely jump at an opportunity to work rather than live on benefits.

One way or another the government will plug the hole that is private spending. And the government will find this out the easy way (expansionary fiscal policy) or the hard way (perpetual deficits that result from weak private-sector tax revenue). Apparently it’s going to be the hard way.

At 9.7% unemployment, isn’t it obvious that Congress is not “spending” enough?

The chart illustrates the Nairu-implied level of unemployment (NAIRU, or the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment) versus the measured rate of unemployment. The concept of NAIRU is limiting in that it inherently binds fiscal policy and is a theoretical notion at best; but it does present a baseline for comparison. The Nairu-implied level of unemployment is simply the CBO’s estimate of NAIRU multiplied by the current labor force. Let’s call points when the current level of unemployment is above the NAIRU-implied level as cyclical surplus of workers.

According to this measure of worker surplus, the state of the labor market is obvious: depressed. The NAIRU-implied level of unemployment is half of that currently measured by the BLS with a record wedge between the two. Furthermore, the cyclical surplus of workers in ’82-’83 – the last time the unemployment rate peaked above 10% – was relatively mild compared to current conditions.

By failing to pass this Bill, the Senate reiterated its unwillingness to support the US labor market. Of course benefits are not the answer – we need a comprehensive jobs Bill to mitigate the consequences of such a depressed labor market. (There was a good article on the longer term unemployment problem at the Curious Capitalist some months back.)

Rebecca Wilder

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