Feelin’ Good

Feelin’ Good
Case by Kaess Commentary
Oct. 5, 2012

It’s a new month and a new quarter and some folks are feelin’ good. The benchmark US Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a 5 year-high, buoyed by large drop in the jobless rate to 7.8%, the lowest level since President Obama took office. While this was good news for Mr. Obama, it’s also a new day for Republican candidate Gov. Mitt Romney after a strong performance at the first Presidential Debate. Is this a new dawn?

The headline you’ll hear about is a 0.3% drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8% in September, from 8.1% in August. By contrast, net new jobs rose by a lackluster +114,000 last month (seasonally adjusted), barely enough to keep up with population growth. This triggered accusations that the ‘Chicago gang’ fixed the numbers a month before Election Day. However July and August payroll gains were revised higher by over 80,000 jobs (to 142,000 and 181,000, respectively), and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced benchmark revisions that indicate it had previously underreported job growth by nearly 400,000 earlier in the year. Add in questions about seasonal adjustments (the process to ‘smooth out’ seasonal swings may have an upward bias to autumn/winter) and a very large jump in part-time employment in a survey of households, and you end up with muddled mess.

What we can say is that monthly job gains have averaged close to 150,000 this year, leading to a gradual decline in unemployment, and that the US economy enters the 4 the quarter with slightly faster growth. And we do mean slightly, since growth in the 2 nd quarter was revised down to 1.3%  annual growth rate (originally reported as +1.7), and the current flash estimates by leading analysts for the 3 rd quarter are about 1.9%. This is supported by data showing an uptick in home prices, a large jump in applications for new and refinanced mortgages, and the strongest pace of vehicle sales last month since March 2008. They offer reasons to be cheerful, but hardly a celebration.

Markets however have found a sweet spot for the moment, and though many key indices closed lower, they continue to advance. An improving job market has buoyed consumer confidence, triggering an upturn in the use of credit to finance new cars, student loans, and other purchases. That has led to optimism about both quarterly earnings and the upcoming holiday season. At the same time, the Federal Reserve’s policy to maintain low interest rates for an extended period is aimed to mitigate downside risk. The Fed’s actions have been echoed by similar actions by central banks in Europe and Japan.

While central bankers helped get this party started, watch out for possible spoilers. Food prices remain below highs in early 2011 that triggered riots and the Arab Spring, but have rebounded toward highs seen in 2008, which led to crisis conditions in low income countries. Oil prices continue the see-saw trading pattern we’ve had all year and are now back below $90/barrel, but could easily rebound. Geopolitical conflicts continue to simmer, with skirmishes between Turkey and Syria, while economic sanctions against Iran are taking a toll, leading to foreign exchange controls and skyrocketing import prices, which could trigger hyperinflation (and may have already). And European finance ministers meet again early next week amid speculation whether Spain will formally request assistance, while Greece has yet to convince its creditors that it has a credible deficit reduction plan, a prerequisite for disbursement of new funds. And a month from now, 2 assuming a clear election outcome, the negotiations over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and
‘fiscal cliff’ will begin. Feelin’ good yet? LK

*Thirteen year-old Carly Rose Sonnenclair sings Nina Simone’s classic, Feelin’ Good. (Start at 1:45).  And here’s the original by the incomparable Nina Simone.


Take It To The Limit

It’s been nearly a fortnight since Federal Reserved announced what has become known as QE3 – (a third round of quantitative easing) to support economic growth. In the FOMC statement, policymakers explained that they undertook the action because of concerns that the economy would not gain the momentum necessary to generate jobs. Unlike many other central banks that focus only on keeping inflation low, the US Federal Reserve has two mandates – to keep prices stable and maximize employment.  They plan to purchase mortgage backed securities (MBS) at regular intervals ($40 billion for the next six months) as part of an effort to maximize employment generation and price stability.  They also anticipate their benchmark Fed Funds rate will remain close to zero into 2015 (assuming a modest inflation environment).  Interestingly, the European Central Bank (ECB) also articulated its policy of purchasing government debt in the secondary markets, in an effort to reduce borrowing costs for countries laden with slow growth, gaping budget deficits, and high borrowing costs.

So, as former Mayor Koch would say, how are they doin’?  It depends on who you ask.  Investors decided that if the Fed was putting money on the line to spur growth, they would do the same with stocks, and major equity indices rallied sharply on the news. But US Treasury prices – particularly for 10 and 30 year maturities (which are used to price many mortgages) declined and yields rose sharply – the opposite of what the Fed intended.  Why?

  • Some say the central bank’s actions could ignite inflation – and look at rising money supply growth as a warning.  While this is a central tenet of monetarism (and Milton Friedman), this relationship has changed over time.  Consider that inflation, excluding food and energy prices, declined 0.1% in August, and in spite of a large jump in energy prices this summer, remains below the Fed’s 2% target.

  • Others are concerned that even if headline inflation remains moderate, the policy rewards banks, punishes savers, and could inflate asset prices (stocks, houses, etc).  Over the course of his tenure as Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan lowered short term rates to support markets through downturns or market crises and kept short term borrowing costs low for an extended period after the 2001 downturn – which in hindsight helped fuel the housing bubble.  Traders had a phrase – the Greenspan put – (that the Fed had their back) which gave them a ‘green light’ to buy.  More recently some traders now talk about a ‘Bernanke put’. While some concerns may be justifiable about financial asset valuations, the housing market has only recently begun to show signs of life.  Given tighter standards, higher costs, and fewer questionable products, home values look unlikely to get out of hand anytime soon.

  • This links into a third concern – that the Federal Reserve’s intervention may not accomplish much and risks longer term damage to the Fed’s balance sheet – and credibility.  Buying tens of billions of dollars in mortgage backed securities adds more debt and timing is questionable (it could influence the election and/or makes no sense to act now when the economy is still growing).  In the past the Federal Reserve officials were known to ‘take away the punchbowl when the party gets going’, but now they seem to be playing the role of bartender.  Others, like IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, applaud central banks for their actions, but warn growth is slowing and urge officials to do more not less

Chairman Bernanke, who has studied the Great Depression at length, has committed to do whatever he and the Federal Reserve can to avoid a repeat of the 1930s.  And in the wake of ongoing evidence that growth momentum has softened, markets have reversed ground in recent sessions and bond yields have moving lower, acknowledging that for now, the inflation boogey-man is at bay.  But it looks increasingly like central bankers have just about ‘taken it to the limit’ in terms of what they can (or in the view some, should) do.  If politicians don’t address budget and debt imbalances soon, we may all be in for a rude awakening this winter.  Lisa Kaess

** Take It To the Limit – was one of the top hits for the Eagles in the 1970s.


What is a Recession?

How do you tell the difference between a recession and a depression, asks the joke? A recession is when a neighbor loses their job; a depression is when you lose yours. Seriously, how do we define a recession?

The ‘quick and dirty’ definition is two consecutive quarters (or six months) of negative growth. Growth is usually defined by gross domestic product (GDP), a term that measures the total amount spent on goods and services in a country in a given period (often quarterly or annually). If the total increases, the economy is expanding – if it declines, the economy is in a downturn.

Ah, if it were only that easy. US recessions are officially declared by the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). If calling a recession were a sport, they are the umpires. The Committee writes, “A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in production, employment, real income, and other indicators. A recession begins when the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends when the economy reaches its trough.” And they wonder why people have a hard time understanding economists.

Using the ‘quick and dirty’ analysis, the current recession would have begun in July 2008. GDP contracted at a -0.5% annual rate in the third quarter and -3.8% annual rate in the fourth quarter. But our economic ‘umpires’ announced last December that the recession actually began in December 2007, when growth and employment peaked.

So this downturn has already lasted a year, and it doesn’t look like we’re out of the woods yet. 

How does that compare? 

In the past 50 years, we have had eight recessions, averaging just under a year each. The longest two lasted sixteen months. The Great Depression lasted roughly a decade, from the Crash of 1929 until just before the onset of World War II. Economists technically view it as two ‘back to back’ recessions — from 1929 to 1933 (ending with the New Deal), and a smaller dip from 1937 to 1939. All in all, this current cycle may come to be known as the Great Recession, but as of now, it is still a far cry from the Great Depression.

Extra credit: www.nber.org or http://www.nber.org/cycles/dec2008.html

*Lisa Kaess has worked as an economist, capital markets analyst, and consultant. This article
was published in The Nyack Villager, April 2009.