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

Wired’s Embarrassing Whitewash of Foxconn

Yves comments on Wired’s Embarrassing Whitewash of Foxconn :

But Johnson admits he’s a tech toy writer who apparently has no knowledge of manufacturing …. Yet he’s remarkably uninhibited in using his fantasies and abject ignorance as a basis for making sweeping generalizations about the Taiwanese powerhouse.

I find this little chart (hat tip Richard Smith) from ninety9 via Alea (who is the antithesis of a socialist) to be more though-provoking than the entire Wired piece:


More can be found here.   Lots of links as well adding to the state financed aspects of Foxcomm.

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

Global PMIs and Fed Policy: they’re linked

Today a host of global purchasing managers indices (PMIs) reiterated that the global economy is slowing….quickly.

Within 24 hours, China, the US, and the euro area all reported July PMIs falling toward the feared 50 (below which the manufacturing industry is contracting) – 50.7, 50.9, and 50.4, respectively. The UK PMI fell below 50 to 49.1 in July.

I would posit (and I believe that others have, too, like Edward Hugh) that this is directly related to Fed policy, specifically that of quantitative easing (QE).

The chart above illustrates the stated PMIs alongside the dates of a shift in the Federal Reserve’s QE policy. The shorter bars indicate those dates when the Fed ended QE and announced that it would reinvest maturing proceeds. On the other hand, the full bars illustrate the outset of QE.

Falling PMIs correlate with the end of QE. New QE correlates with a rebound in global PMIs. Given this correlation and the latest GDP release, I expect that talk of QE anew to surface.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , , Comments (7) | |

Take a break …planning for efficiency

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism points us to exploring how the pursuit of “efficiency”, for example in supply chains, without assessing what other risks are involved and planning ahead can result in major problems:

It isn’t all that hard to understand that stressing efficiency at all cost comes at the expense of safety. Engineers will tell you that efforts that are pro-safety involve various forms of buffers and redundancy and are thus costly. During the early days of the crisis, commentators often discussed the implications of Richard Bookstaber’s book A Demon of Our Own Design, in which he argued that systems that lacked breaks between various processes were tightly coupled, which meant that a failure at one point in the process would propagate through the entire system, as if one transformer failing would bring down an entire electrical grid.

Anyone who has been on the periphery of manufacturing can see that all its fads can easily have pushed too many companies into failure-prone systems. Just in time inventory was a reversal of the historical propensity of manufactures to carry a lot of inventory to make life easier for managers. That practice in isolation might not be a bad thing. But over the years, many manufacturers have also concentrated on limiting the number of vendors to give them more bargaining leverage with them and squeeze them on costs. That increases dependence on suppliers while also increasing the riskiness of their operations. It has finally become fashionable to work with vendors or offshored factories in countries with low labor costs like China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. Long transit times also increases business risk.

Now of course, like traders, top manager have every reason not to be terribly worried about long term risks. The prototype of the profitable but risky trading strategies that Nicholas Nassim Taleb likes to deride is that they work just fine on a day to day basis but blow up catastrophically periodically. And those blowups are predictable. But as long as they aren’t likely to happen every year or every other year, decision-makers have huge incentives that increase risk as long as the blow-up risk is not all that imminent (I am waiting for a quant to devise an optimal blow up metric as a covert trading strategy tool). So we should also regard the fact that business managers have acted exactly like reckless traders to be an expected outcome.

Tags: , , , Comments (13) | |

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

Tags: , , , Comments (7) | |

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.

Tags: , Comments (12) | |

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.

Tags: , Comments (3) | |

Consumers around the world are generally more upbeat, but not uniformly so

Last week the IMF released its World Economic Outlook Update for the October 2009 forecast. The global economy is expected to grow 3.9% in 2010, an 0.8% upward revision. In fact, the 2010 growth projections were generally upward with little offset in 2011 (often when you get a surprise and positive economic release, the current period forecast improves at the cost of growth later in the forecast):

  • The 2010 U.S. growth Update is 1.2%-points above the October level, now 2.7%.
  • The Eurozone GDP growth Updated to 1% pace in 2010, up 233% from October’s forecast (driven by the 400% surge of Germany’s GDP growth outlook, now 1.5% in 2010).
  • Canada’s GDP growth forecast got a slight bump, up 0.5%-points to 2.6%.
  • The UK is now expected to grow at a 1.3% annual pace in 2010.
  • Russia’s Update to GDP growth is 3.6% in 2010 (that’s off of a sharp 9% drop in 2009).
  • And the IMF envisages that China maintain 10% growth in 2010, up 1%-point from its forecast just 3 months ago.

The IMF has no crystal ball, but the story is compelling: banking crisis + global recession = weak recovery. However, it is improbable that the IMF is spot on. The short IMF press release stresses the divergent path of economic recovery across the advanced and developing world. In short, much of the emerging and developing world should recover smartly, while key advanced economies, burdened by debt and financial stress, are to see a more muted recovery.

Of note is the IMF’s listed upside risk to the growth forecast (thus inflation, trade, and other related variables):

On the upside, the reversal of the confidence crisis and the reduction in uncertainty may continue to foster a stronger-than-expected improvement in financial market sentiment and prompt a larger-than-expected rebound in capital flows, trade, and private demand.

Confidence, consumer, investor, and business, is key – let’s focus on the consumer. The one that accounts for roughly 17% of global GDP – i.e., the U.S. consumer – remains afflicted by excessive debt burden and record unemployment. In contrast, consumer confidence is rebounding smartly in other parts of the world, developed and developing.

Advanced consumers showing some confidence, but the U.S. consumer confidence index remains 39% below that during the onset of the recession.

The chart illustrates various measures of consumer confidence across a selection of advanced economies (you can see the exact sources here). Consumer confidence in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Ireland remain well short of their Jan. 2008 levels. Notably, confidence in the U.S. has moved laterally since May 2009 despite recent gains in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Confidence in some emerging economies remains muted as well.

I chose a selection of monthly confidence indicators for select emerging markets. Clearly, some biggies are missing – India and South Korea being the first on the list – but data availability and/or frequency precludes a more thorough analysis.

Consumers in Indonesia are ostensibly more upbeat than those in other emerging economies. In China, consumer confidence hovers below its Jan 2008 level. And in spite of the bubbles and wealth talk in China, confidence hasn’t been this low since 2003. In Brazil, consumer confidence is back to peak levels before the onset of the U.S. recession.

I provided a snapshot of global consumer confidence. Generally consumers do portray the ongoing confidence struggle, especially in the U.S., that plays out in the IMF’s muted growth forecast.

Tags: , , Comments (6) | |


by Rebecca
Cross posted from Newsneconomics

These are interesting times in global economics, especially from the policy perspective. And although there was a sense of global urgency across the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, UK, and US) and the G5 (Brazil, People’s Republic of China, India, Mexico, and South Africa) late in 2008 and early in 2009, policy makers now face very different economic circumstances. The global downturn was (mostly) ubiquitous, but the upswing will not be. The G5 are likely to initiate explicit exit strategies before the G7, as growth, domestic demand, and inflation rebound first.

The downturn in the developed world was very severe, as illustrated by the sharp contraction of GDP of the G7 countries. And across the G5, some countries experienced similar declines, however given the nose-dive that was global trade, the economic resilience via expansionary policy in India and China has been rather remarkable. 

Domestic demand, underpinned by robust fiscal and monetary policy pushed auto sales forward in the G5 and simply offset some of the decline in retail sales in the G7 (see charts below). I used auto sales in the G5 as a proxy for retail sales, as I could not access a retail sales in India (not even sure they offer the statistic). Impressively, though, retail sales remained strong in the UK. Auto sales in China, Brazil, and India have been hot – the real question here is: what is the underlying demand for goods and services in these countries, especially in China.

Monetary policy – driving down interest rates in order to stimulate consumption via the credit markets – was very successful in the G5, but much less so in the ailing G7.

And finally, inflation has been quite resilient in some countries, notably in the UK and India. As such, the Bank of England has a real trade-off with which to contend: inflation (as measured by the CPI), 1.6% over the year, remains sticky and remarkably close to target, 2.0%. The Reserve Bank of India is seeing food prices drive inflation steadily upward. expect India to be one of the first emerging markets to start tightening (The Bank of Israel was the first).

There are a lot of question marks right now – the biggest is when central banks and fiscal authorities start to pull back. Especially in the G7, too early and one risks the feared W, but too late, and inflation becomes an issue.
Across the G7, rate hikes are unlikely to occur until well-into 2010, and maybe even 2011 for some. Across the G5, however, late 2010 is more likely an upper limit, however, some countries like Mexico are seriously struggling and policy will remain loose for some time. (See RGE Monitor Nouriel Roubini’s latest, “Thoughts on Where We Are” – unfortunately, a subscription is required.)

Tags: , , , , Comments (0) | |

CGI 2: Opening Ceremony / Initial Plenary Session (1 of 2)

This one’s going to be long because a lot of general themes get presented. Those looking for the shorter version may want to just go to the website and watch the videos.*

William Jefferson Clinton (WJC) introduces the proceedings by giving a background on the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). CGI began in 2005, and required each participant to make a specific, measurable commitment. (This statement is followed by shot of Jessica Alba and Cash Warren, possibly because they started dating that year, but probably just because the director liked the shot.) Almost all commitments that were made then were multi-year (generally 3- to 5-year commitments). Five years into the CGI, about one-fourth of the commitments made have been fully completed. The CGI has, for instance, given 48 million people better access to health care. (Isn’t that just about what National Health Insurance would do for the US alone? Still, it’s 48 million people who are often ignored.)

There have also been “unvaluable but invaluable” effort at reconciliations. (I checked this; “unvaluable” is indeed a word.) Unlike other conferences, attendees will receive only a gift bag—the gift to participants is “only a bag.”** Each attendee (not certain if this includes the press, but I assume not) has been allocated 200 “points” that can be used at the “Giving Back Center.” For instance, one can donate “a P&G water filtration system” for 10 points.

I should mention that the organizers and donors to the conference are the clearest indication of the payoff from WJC’s “third way” efforts: Tom Golisano, for instance, is cited as a founding and continuing sponsor. Other major sponsors and donors to the conference include P&G, ExxonMobil, and APCO Worldwide (who are providing Wi-Fi access). I half expected to see ADM listed. (Matt Damon’s appearance sponsored by?)

(That ExxonMobil is a major sponsor of a conference that is placing Climate Change front and center in its discussions [see below] is a sign of either encouragement or a coming paradigm shift. Perhaps both.

WJC noted that Participants not invited back unless they do something toward their commitment during the year. However, due to the Global Financial Crisis, several previously-made commitments have had to be extended. (Three-year goals have become five-year goals, fives have become seven. This mirrors the year in which I expect to be solvent again.)

And then WJC talks about what WJC is best at talking about: po9litics. He notes that there are two questions that are asked in any political discussion: 1) What are you going to do? 2) How much money are you going to spend on it? Politicians almost never discuss how to do it to maximize positive impact in other people’s life. And it is that discussion that the CGI is all about.

He proceeds then to introduce a pairing that was made possible by last year’s CGI: Gary White and Matt Damon of The statistics flow from his (WJC’s) tongue: one billion people lack water, and 2.5 billion lack sanitation facilities. He loves this, and it’s somewhat infectious. is an outgrowth, I gather, work that Gary White has been doing since 1990. Mr.White describes the economy before Watercredit was founded, where people paid 25% of their gross income for clean water, or had to borrow money from loan sharks at 125% interest rates to install toilets. By combining microfinance with technology transfer, water credit was able to ameliorate this situation in many areas—and its loans are repaid 97% of the time. I can think of several mortgage lenders who would like that repayment ratio.

Matt Damon then announced a new commitment for, in that they are extending their efforts into Haiti, where 51% of the rural population lacks clean drinking water and 29% of the urban population lacks proper sanitation facilities. They are able to do this in part due to a generous commitment from the Ex;it Foundation. Many organizations are getting some good, useful publicity here.

The next presenter is Linda Lockhart of Global Give Back Circle, whose group is devoted to Educational Progress in Kenya for girls. Again, the source for this group was through CGI Connect. (Ms. Lockhart claims to have been surprised when she entered the keywords for her group’s goal [education, women] and immediately received multiple responses from organizations. (We clearly do not travel in the same circles.) The group’s efforts were rewarded when they discovered one of the root causes of women dropping out: lack of shoes. Teaming up with, among others, Microsoft, they presented the feel-good moment of the Opening Ceremonies with three Kenyan girls speaking–often in unison, sometimes sotto voce—about the good that Global Giveback Circle did for them.

At this point, the Plenary Session begins. WJC introduces Muhtar Kent, President and CEO of Coke. Mr. Kent speaks how Equal allocation of resources in Sub-Saharan Africa would, in and of itself, increase production 10-20%. In the current situation, women’s mobility is severely more restricted than men’s, of course. Kent, too, seems amazed to have learned this.

Kent is followed by Michelle Bachelet, current President of Chile and also, the first female defense minister in Latin America. Being a female politician, she not only has noticed but also has a strong interest in “soft” issues.

Mike Duke, the current CEO of Wal-Mart (WMT), ran the International Division before ascending to the chairmanship. WJC notes that WMT now offers health insurance to its employees, as well as having made a major effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. (WJC stated, I believe, that WMT’s stock began rallying only when they announced their “global warming initiative.” I cannot find the evidence of this, though I didn’t do a thorough search.) Duke notes that a 5% reduction in their packaging alone was the equivalent of taking 210,000 diesel trucks off road. (And it saved them money. This theme will recur throughout from the CEOs.)

After this, WJC introduces Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, describing him as having spoken about climate change in “excruciating detail,” which may well be the first time someone has done that to WJC instead of the reverse. Rudd notes that Australia is the country that has been the hardest hit by Anthropogenic Global Warming, and is the leading proponent of the other first-day theme: the G-8 giving way to G-20.

The particpants’s discussion on a Rock Following.

*If they post them; let me know in comments if you can find the video on the site and I’ll add a direct link.

**Compare with most conferences, where you get a bag and almost enough “swag” to cover the retail cost of the membership (which, for attendees, was $1,000 minimum).

Tags: , , , , , Comments (0) | |

A housing bubble illustration

by Rebecca

Yesterday’s post on the Australian economy sparked some discussion of its housing market. I agree – Australia’s bubble is large relative to that in the US (interestingly enough) and Canada.

The chart illustrates the price to rent ratio in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, the UK, and the US, which measures the trade-off between owning and renting. Across country, the housing indices are not perfectly comparable – for example, Statistics Canada measures the value of new homes, while the S&P/Case-Shiller index measures repeat sales of existing homes. Furthermore, countries often measure the owner-equivalent rents differently. Nevertheless, the trends are meaningful.

Australia’s bubble was (is) big, and relative to rents, home values recently turned upward. According to Steve Keen (thank you reader VtCodger for the link), government subsidies provided households the incentive to leverage up their balance sheets while the private business sector deleveraged. Basically, the crash is yet to come.

The recent uptick in the Australian price-rent ratio, i.e., jump in housing prices relative to rents, is interesting. Notice the same is happening in the UK and Ireland; however in their cases, seriously weak economic conditions are dragging down the CPI housing index (the denominator). (In the UK, prices are likewise rising, but rents are falling faster.) As rents slide, so too will the relative attractiveness of home ownership.

I expect that the same will happen in the US. In Q2 2009, the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index grew 1.4%, faster than did the owner-occupied rents index in the CPI. Owner-occupied housing (see CPI table here) inflation slowed dramatically in Q2; and given the long lag on core price fluctuations, there is a very good chance that it turns negative.

Rebecca Wilder

Tags: , Comments (0) | |