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

October personal income and spending strong

October personal income and spending strong

In October personal income increased 0.5%, and personal spending increased 0.6%. These are both very strong increases. Further, as the graph below shows, real inflation adjusted income and spending both also rose:

These are coincident indicators that form part of the quintessential nowcast. Real personal income adjusted by transfer payments and real personal spending are two of the very series the NBER looks at to determine the onset and ending of recessions.

As a result, they don’t tell us anything about where we are going vs. where we’ve just been. Further, because these have been subject to very dramatic and very late (as in, years later) revisions, I’m putting even less stock in them. Still, I’d much rather they be strongly positive than negative, so this is evidence that the consumer economy remained strong in the first part of this quarter.

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Amazon Wins!!!

(Dan here….better a little late than not…)

by Kenneth Thomas  

Amazon Wins!!!

Well, what did you expect? With 238 entrants and 20 finalists, the Amazon HQ2 location tournament resulted in a resounding victory for Amazon: Billions of dollars in subsidies and binders full of detailed information on the contestants. Plus, we got a surprise twist at the end, when Amazon announced it would choose two “headquarters” instead of one. Of course, I never thought that having two headquarters made economic sense (“Doesn’t that defeat the idea of a headquarters as a central coordinating site?” I asked last year), and the same is even truer when you have three “headquarters.”

Leaving aside how Amazon plans to coordinate three headquarters’ operations, the subsidies boggle the mind and insult our intelligence. Let’s lay out what we know about the subsidies so far, remembering that there are other subsidy elements that are likely to be discovered as things play out. That is what happened with Foxconn, for example: Its subsidies in Wisconsin were originally reported as $3 billion in state subsidies plus local tax increment financing (TIF). By June of this year, Good Jobs First was reporting that further subsidies plus a huge TIF award brought the total to $4.8 billion (Megadeals spreadsheet, June 2018 update; download here). Something is likely to up the total incentives Amazon will receive, above what we know today.

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Q3 corporate profits increase

Q3 corporate profits increase

Third quarter corporate profits were released as part of the first revision of GDP this morning.  Since corporate profits deflated by unit labor costs are a long leading indicator, let’s take a look.

Here is the raw corporate profits table released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis:

Lines #3 and #11 are the two we are interested in. Both measure corporate profits after tax, with and without inventory adjustments. The first increased quarter over quarter by +3.3%; the second by +0.7%. Note that this q/q result (as opposed to YoY) is not affected by the tax cut enacted last December.

A few weeks ago, unit labor costs were reported to have increased by +0.3% in the third quarter.

As a result, regardless of which way we measure, corporate profits increased in Q3.

Between increased corporate profits and loose lending, as reflected in the Senior Loan Officer Survey several weeks ago, the producer side of the economy continued to do very well through September.  Although several other long leading indicators, most importantly interest rates and housing turned negative by the end of September, this is enough to confirm that, left to its own devices, the economy should not roll over into recession in the first three quarters of next year.

The “left to its own devices” part in the above sentence, however, is an important qualifier right now, because it does not include the effect of Trump’s tariffs. This is an ongoing and generally haphazard public policy intervention into the market, and the early results, as measured by rail traffic in particular, have been negative. It is simply impossible for me to do anything more than guess how much that might change the conclusion. At the most, I would hazard that Trump will continue to add tariffs, and that it *could* take a weak economy, such as I already foresee for next summer, and tip it into contraction.

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October new home sales plummet — but take it with a big grain of salt

October new home sales plummet — but take it with a big grain of salt

As you may have already read elsewhere, new home sales plunged -8.9% in October to the seasonally adjusted annual rate of 544,000. Here’s the accompanying graph:

BUT … take this with a big grain of salt. The reason I rely on building permits, espectially single family permits, is their much smaller volatility, and *much* smaller rate of revisions.

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Janet Yellen “Not Tall Enough”

Janet Yellen “Not Tall Enough”

So said Donald Trump on several occasions in connection with possibly appointing her as Fed Chair, according to an article in today’s Washington Post by Philip Rucker, John Dawsey, and Damian Paletta.  This article, along with several others, mostly covered the 20 minute interview these three had with Trump in the Oval Office.  Most of the news was wxs expected: on MbS still “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” on his role in the Khashoggi murder; “i don’t see it” regarding evidence of a human role in global warming presented in the recently released climate change report, and California forest fires still due to poor forest management (with Interior Sec under investigation Ryan Zinke weighing in on that one about the importance of good forest management).  No, the top story was about the economy.

So Trump is blaming GM’s impending layoff of 15,000 workers on the Fed raising interest rates, no role for his steel tariffs.  Janet Yellen should probably grateful she is not in the firing line.  It is Jerome (Jay) Powell who is, with Trump declaring “So far, I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay.  Not even a little bit. And I’m not blaming anybody, but I’m just telling you I think that the fed is way off-base with what they are doing.”

Now arguably the Fed is being too vigorous about raising interest rates, and they may well slow down or even halt this if the rumblings of growth slowing become louder.  That said, if Yellen had been reappointed probably we would have seen interest rates this year, if possibly maybe not quite as rapidly as we have seen (or would have with some hawk outsider many Congressional Republicans were pushing like Jon Taylor).  But the Fed is much more of a group operation than many realize, especially given that the Chairs for quite some time have sought more or less consensus decisions, even as they are often scattered dissidents making public noises.  And this consensus has a strong element coming from the staff and their models, wirh all of this building in a lot of momentum.  Once the Fed gets itself into doing something, like deciding on the string of interest rates they have been doing, it is hard to undo that.

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Trump More Seriously Kowtows To MBS

Trump More Seriously Kowtows To MBS

 We have already seen the spectacle of Trump simply dismissing the reported CIA conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t”)  He has put forward silly excuses for this: low oil prices! (nonexistent) hundreds of billions of dollars of arms deals!  Key to the anti-Iranian coalition!  Oh, and also supposedly key to Israeli-Palestinian peace, this last especially ridiculous since Trump supported moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, wirh Saudi King Salman himself intervening to denounce that.  Of course most of us suspect that his willingness to spout off on all this stuff has a lot to do with money personally flowing to him and Jared Kushner, quite aside from the sword dance and orb and all that stuff they showered him with on his first foreign trip as president.  But now we are seeing a new and more disgusting level of kowtowing to MbS and the Saudis.

This has to do with the war in Yemen.  Juan Cole reports that the US is blocking a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Britain and supposedly supported by all the other nations in it for a ceasefire around the Yemeni port of Hodeida.  This is the port through which most supplies go to the Houthi-controlled areas in the northern part of Yemen, including the nominal capital, Sana’a.  The official government, now operating out of Aden to the south, the former capiral of the formerly separate South Yemen, a Sunni govenment backed by the Saudi and UAE, has been attacking Hodeida, apparently hoping to conquer it and cut off supplies to the Houthis with the intention to starve them into submission.  Even though many in the US DOD and Congress, including many GOP senators, have become increasingly unhappy with the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthis, and the US has apparently ceased aiding the refueling of the Saudi bombers, although apparently they do not need the US assistance on this.  Reportedly we are still providing crucial intel in support of this bombing campaign, which has led to many civilian deaths, and the population is also reportedly on the verge of famine, as well as suffering from a cholera epidemic.

The UNSC proposal is for a ceasefire around Hodeida, but MbS reportedly “threw a fit” when he learned of this proposal, which apparently includes wording that is very supportive of the Saudi-backed government in Yemen and critical of the Houthis. But MbS wants no halt to the campaign to conquer Hodeida and starve the Houthis and those in their territories.  So, Trump has kowtowed to this “fit,” and is apparently blocking the proposal, despite it coming from the British and containing anti-Houthi language.  There have been reports that MbS has said that he has Jared Kushner “in his pocket,” but it is now screamingly clear that this nauseating murderer also has President Trump “in his pocket” as well.

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CSX Slowly being Disassembled by Mantle Ridge Hedge Fund

CSX connects most major U.S. cities east of the Mississippi River. Since 2017, the railroad has laid off 6,000 employees, cut back on capital spending, and slashed the number of trains it runs and discontinued hundreds of the routes it serves.

Together CSX and Union Pacific serve major U.S. cities west of the Mississippi River and together they discontinued service on 197 out of 301 cross-country routes that the two rail giants partnered on in September 2017.

The results of these actions leaves shippers who want to send goods across the country no “direct” means to send a container by rail from Houston to Baltimore. Instead, CSX will take the container as far as Chambersburg, Penn. And the rest of the way will be by a container trucker going the remaining 77 miles to Baltimore. The same exists if the shipper uses Norfolk Southern. Norfolk will take the container only as far as Harrisburg, Penn. And the container will be transferred to a container trucker for the balance of the 76 miles to Baltimore.

Why would CSX owners do this when the need still exists? The cost cutting brings short-term profits and a soaring stock price. Between the beginning of 2017 and the end of this year’s third quarter, CSX labor expenses declined by 18% and the value of its stock rose by 106 percent. Rather than increase the price on its route, CSX can maximize profits and minimize capital and maintenance costs by cutting service in the aggregate. The cut in Labor cost is just an add on when compared to the cuts in Overhead costs.

Side Note: So much for common carrier and public utility laws. “The term utilities can refer to the set of services provided by these organizations consumed by the public: Coal, electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, telephone, and transportation. Broadband internet services (both fixed-line and mobile) are increasingly being included within the definition” while a “common carrier offers its services to the general public under license or authority provided by a regulatory body. The regulatory body has usually been granted ‘ministerial authority’ by the legislation that created it. The regulatory body may create, interpret, and enforce its regulations upon the common carrier (subject to judicial review) with independence and finality, as long as it acts within the bounds of the enabling legislation.”

E. Hunter Harrison is the man who figured out how-to pump-up profits by cutting service. Over the course of his career at the Illinois Central, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific Railways; Harrison implemented his trademark program: “precision scheduled railroading.” Besides cutting capital (engines, cars, etc.) Overhead (maintenance of equipment, facilities rail beds, costs associated with Labor, etc.) and Labor costs; precision scheduled railroading means less service, fewer and longer trains, fewer routes, and ignoring some major cities.

Side Note: This is the same type of cuts in service many politicians and competitors of the USPS are pushing for today. Railways like the postal service are utilities and are vital to the community. The purpose of both mail and railroads was to provide a service as a public utility. Railroads being granted exclusivity for certain routes and governed by common carrier law. Someone is purposely asleep at the switch and abating the destruction of infrastructure.

Why would CSX cut service drastically? Hedge fund Mantle Ridge and founder and CEO Paul Hilal. Mantle Ridge had and still has only one investment, an initial $1.2 billion stake in CSX stock purchased in late 2016. The $1.2 billion is now worth nearly $3 billion as of the last quarter. In January 2017 with Mantle Ridge’s investment, Hilal pushed CSX to hire his partner Harrison and implement precision schedule railroading (nothing to do with schedules and more to do with providing service).

CSX agreed to Hilal’s demands. Shareholders salivated at the thought of Harrison boosting CSX’s profits right into their pockets and showed large support for Harrison’s leadership at CSX. Harrison saying that “shareholders took a much more active role than I’ve ever seen before. They wanted change.”

Of course, they wanted change at CSX for short term profits or rent taking. They will leave CSX a shadow of its formal self. The loss of the necessary infrastructure promoting the transportation of goods in the US will be born by its citizens in increased costs and impinge upon national security.

On a similar note and action . . . October 15, 2018 Sears faced a deadline for payment of $134 million on its debt. It didn’t have the money, so it filed for protection from its creditors. Eddie Lampert — the largest shareholder in the company, with nearly half its shares — stepped down as CEO. Another corporate pirate who will strip the assets of the company and leave Sears a shell of its former self.

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U.S. Interest Rates and Global Banking in Emerging Market Economies

by Joseph Joyce

U.S. Interest Rates and Global Banking in Emerging Market Economies

The spillover effects of changes in U.S. interest rates are widely recognized (see here and  here). An increase in rates, for example, raises the cost of dollar-denominated financing outside the U.S., which has grown in recent years, while an appreciation of the dollar makes such debt even more expensive to service and refinance. The emerging markets are among the nations adversely affected by the rise in U.S. interest rates. Several recent research papers have shown how global bank lending in these economies is affected.

Stefan Avdjiev, Cathérine Koch, Patrick McGuire and Goetz von Peter of the Bank for International Settlements investigate the impact of a change in U.S. monetary policy on cross-border lending by global banks in their paper, “Transmission of Monetary Policy through Global Banks: Whose Policy Matters?”, BIS Working Paper no. 745. In their analysis they also investigate the effect of changes in the policy stance of the central banks of both the country of the borrower as well as the home country of the lending bank. They use data on cross-border claims denominated in U.S. dollars held by international banks in 32 lender countries on borrowers in 55 countries over the period of 2000-2016.

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Climate Change Report

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Via Bill McBride at Calculated Risk:

Climate Change Report

This is a critical threat and should be a nonpartisan issue.

Here is the Fourth National Climate Assessment. An excerpt on the economic impact:

In the absence of significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities. Regional economies and industries that depend on natural resources and favorable climate conditions, such as agriculture, tourism, and fisheries, are vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures are projected to reduce the efficiency of power generation while increasing energy demands, resulting in higher electricity costs. The impacts of climate change beyond our borders are expected to increasingly affect our trade and economy, including import and export prices and U.S. businesses with overseas operations and supply chains. Some aspects of our economy may see slight near-term improvements in a modestly warmer world. However, the continued warming that is projected to occur without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century, especially in the absence of increased adaptation efforts. With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states.

 

 

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October housing permits and starts flat vs. trend

October housing permits and starts flat vs. trend

This morning’s report on housing permits and starts will do nothing to stop the now-received wisdom that higher interest rates, higher prices, (and the impact of the cap on the mortgage tax deduction) has caused this most important cyclical market to cool. On the other hand, they aren’t evidence of any intensifying downturn.

While we wait for FRED, here’s the Census Bureau’s graphic representation of permits, starts, and completions:

Here are the basic important numbers:

  • single family permits  down -0.6% m/m -0.6% YoY
  • total permits -0.5% m/m -6.0% YoY
  • total starts -+1.5% m/m -2.9% YoY
  • 3 month average of total starts +1.0% m/m +3.2% YoY

 

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