Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Only a Half Trillion Dollars

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

It’s a sign of how much trouble we’re in when a budget deficit of a half trillion dollars seems like fiscal restraint.

It is progress, given that annual budget deficits were running above $1 trillion a year throughout President Obama’s first term and have been as high as $1.4 trillion.  And it could have been worse.  Recall the effort made by President Obama to stop the automatic spending cuts that took place when sequestration was adopted.

But a half trillion dollars is still a mountain of money.  It helps to give the number some context.CBO Chart

To reach a half trillion dollars, you would have to spend $8 per second beginning with the year 0 and continue spending through today.  If you had a stack of $1 bills adding up to $500 billion and were able to put them one on top of another, the stack would be 34,000 miles high.

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The QE Apocalypse

Friday, July 11th, 2014

The end is near.

The Federal Reserve Board has now put a date on the quantitative easing apocalypse, letting us know that bond buying will end in October – unless the central bank changes its mind, of course.

The October ending is not unexpected.  The Fed has been cutting back bond purchases by $10 billion a month since last year and it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that there will be nothing left to taper post-October.

Yet this news, reported in the just-released minutes to last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, is being treated as a revelation.  It was, for example, the lead story in The Wall Street Journal, which typically doesn’t lead with news that was discussed last year and made official at a meeting that took place a month ago. Portugal

The real news, though, is what wasn’t discussed – the end of near-zero interest rates.  As a result, rather than pushing yields up and bond prices down, release of the meeting minutes had the opposite impact.

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Sprinkling the Fairy Dust of Illusory Riches

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

When the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) calls central bank market rigging “the fairy dust of illusory riches,” it’s time to pay attention.

The BIS is the central banks’ central bank.  Its role is “to serve central banks in their pursuit of monetary and financial stability, to foster international cooperation in those areas and to act as a bank for central banks.”

To provide the statement with some context, and to alert you about what else you can expect from central banks moving forward, we provide a summary of other key points made in this year’s BIS annual report, which is appropriately titled, “In Search of a New Compass.”Compass

First, there’s recognition that easy money policy has gone far enough.  That’s self-evident, but of special interest when you consider the source.  BIS notes that despite a pickup in economic growth, the world economy “has not shaken off its dependence on monetary stimulus.  Monetary policy is still struggling to normalize after so many years of extraordinary accommodation.”

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Prozac Nation

Friday, June 27th, 2014

It’s all stress-free bliss these days … at least for anyone who’s not paying attention.

Has someone been putting anti-depressants in the water supply?  That’s one way to explain Wednesday’s non-reaction to the report that the economy shrank by 2.9% in the first quarter – not the 1% drop previously reported.

It would also explain continued investor complacency reported last week, with the VIX (volatility index) approaching single digits.  And it would explain the plunge in junk bond yields to 5.6%, which is a full 3.4% points lower than the decade-long average of 9%.

GDP GrowthYet investors showed that they still have a pulse, when they took the Dow down 100 points after James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, announced that an interest rate hike may take place in the first quarter of 2015.

So consider this in context.  In addition to the slumping economy, we have Russia’s continued takeover of Ukraine, which is now being overshadowed by the continued takeover of Iraq by Muslim terrorists known as ISIS and the possibility of U.S. military intervention.  We have civil war continuing in Syria and continued nuclear development in Iran, in spite of the lifting of sanctions.  We have U.S. veterans in need of medical treatment being ignored while the Veterans Administration fudges numbers.  We have the missing e-mails of Lois Lerner and six other IRS employees who allegedly targeted conservative groups.  We have continuing fallout in the healthcare industry from the pains of implementing Obamacare.  We have a stock market so overblown that price-to-earnings ratios are at levels higher than they’ve been through 89% of the history of the S&P 500.

So what’s moving the market?  A statement made by a Fed board member that repeats a statement he previously made.

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The Market’s Missing Mojo

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Easy money policy has its share of side effects.  The stock market continues to hit new highs, thanks to the Fed, but the level of risk that investors and taxpayers are exposed to also may be close to new highs.

The market for U.S. Treasuries, as one example, is a “risk on” market.  As Bloomberg put it, “Just because U.S. Treasuries look more and more stable doesn’t mean they are.”

Some may mistake a lack of volatility for low risk, but the lack of volatility appears to be the result of less liquidity, not lower risk, as the Fed has purchased trillions of dollars in bonds and banks are pulling back from debt trading. Bubble PE_0

Before the financial crisis, lower volatility resulted in more trading, but in this case trading volume has dropped.

“What’s happening instead,” Bloomberg reported, “is unprecedented central-bank stimulus has sent everyone into the same risk-on bets, while it’s also becoming more difficult to trade as banks shore up their balance sheets in the face of new regulations.”

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Mario the Magnificent

Friday, June 6th, 2014

It will take more than higher prices to cure what ails the European economy, but Wall Street reacted to the European Central Bank’s inflation-boosting efforts by setting new records yesterday.

Action by the ECB has been widely anticipated since last month, when ECB President Mario Draghi announced that the ECB would be “comfortable acting” at this month’s meeting.  With a report this week that Eurozone inflation was just 0.5%, action by the ECB was all but certain.  The ECB’s target rate of inflation is just under 2%.

Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi

Anticipation of ECB action has been helping to prop up the U.S. market at a time when the Federal Reserve Board is winding down its quantitative easing program by reducing its purchase of bonds by $10 billion per month.  Apparently, as long as someone is following easy money policies, the markets are happy.

The actions announced by ECB President Mario Draghi did not include bond buying (although there are no Eurozone bonds).  That’s in keeping with previous actions by Draghi, who previously relied on “forward guidance” to boost European markets and achieve monetary goals.

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Polar Vortex or Recession Redux?

Friday, May 30th, 2014

The recovery that wasn’t a recovery may have come to an end, as the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that gross domestic product dropped by 1% during the first quarter of 2014.

Even with the drop in GDP, lower housing sales and continued high unemployment, no one is saying the economic is in a recession.  Perhaps when a recovery is as insignificant as the one we’ve experienced for nearly five years, the distinction between recession and recovery is insignificant.

The economy was in sad shape five years ago and it’s in sad shape today, in spite of record stimulus spending, bond buying, and warm and fuzzy messages from the President, Congress and the Fed.

Quarter-to-Quarter-Changes-in-Real-GDP-Percent-Change_chartbuilder-1But fear not.  The bar is so low now, even a baby step over it will look like a high jump.  At least that’s the opinion of PNC Chief Economist Stuart Hoffman who wrote, “I believe this real GDP decline, mostly due to the polar vortex, coiled the ‘economic spring’ even tighter for a sharp snap-back (boing!) this quarter, where I have an above-consensus forecast for a 4.0% annualized rise in real GDP.”

In other words, bad news for the first quarter is good news for the second quarter.  Stop me if you’ve heard that story before.

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Household Income Shows Troubling Outcome

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Hold off on the victory dance.

The 2014 “Economic Report of the President” and many media reports indicate that the U.S. economy has finally recovered.  But has it?

One measure of economic health is household income.

Historically, America has prospered, as each generation typically has earned more inflation-adjusted income than the generation that preceded it.  The American Dream is not just to succeed yourself, but to provide your children with a better life.

A better life means more than money, of course, but money enables the next generation to do more, live more comfortably and worry less about making the mortgage payments.  Materialistic though it may be, it’s part of the American Dream.

So it’s alarming to see the drop in income that has taken place since 2007, when the financial crisis began.  Median household income has dropped from $56,000 to $51,017, which is a dip of nearly 10%.

We’ve had dips before, as the chart below shows, particularly during the “stagflation” years of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  But this has been the most dramatic drop in income in recent history.

Household Income

Household Income

When household income shrinks, some in the middle class risk sinking down to the lower class and those on the cusp of becoming middle class no longer are able to achieve that status.  As the lower class grows, government expenditures grow, resulting in higher taxes and even further erosion of discretionary income for those in the middle class.

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Wishful Thinking Does Not Create Economic Recovery

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

This was going to be the year.  Remember the predictions of 3% economic growth?

More recently, the consensus was 1.2% growth for the most recent quarter.

It turns out, though, that the economy has flat-lined, growing at a puny 0.1%, quarter over quarter.  Even the 2% growth we’ve experienced throughout the 58 months of economic recovery we’ve had (see last week’s post) looks good in comparison to what we’re experiencing.GDP

Keynesians, undaunted by being wrong 100% of the time, have been predicting for years that prosperity is just around the corner.  The only thing around the corner, though, has been another corner, then another.  It’s time to realize that we’ve been going in circles.

Growth of 0.1% is, of course, just a whisker’s width away from recession.  Maybe that’s what’s around the corner.

Two areas of weakness were trade, which subtracted 80 basis points from GDP growth, and inventories, which subtracted 60 basis points.  You may recall that in Q4 of 2013, when economists were talking about strengthening growth, it was because inventories were increasing.

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The Economic Recovery That No One Noticed

Friday, April 25th, 2014

The average recovery since the end of World War II has been 58 months.  The current “recovery” has just reached that milestone.

So maybe we should be celebrating.  But what’s to celebrate?econ_expansion25_405

If you were to define “recovery” as a period when gross domestic project (GDP) increases from one quarter to the next, yes, we’ve been in a recovery.  But a recovery is typically reflected by a period that also includes, among other things, low unemployment, strong consumer spending, increasing income, higher inflation and strong manufacturing.

Most of those signs of recovery have been either barely visible or missing, and GDP has been growing about as fast as a bonsai tree.

This has been, and will likely continue to be, the recovery that no one noticed.  It’s a recovery in name only, as for most Americans it doesn’t feel much different than a recession.  Consider what’s been happening:

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