Opinion

The Great Debate

Fed can’t fix broken economy, politics

The Federal Reserve’s decision to move to a kind of quantitative neutrality is a tacit admission that it, or rather that the United States, is in a political bind that makes a bold response to a deteriorating economy difficult.

Despite reams of evidence that conditions are worsening — much of it cited in the statement the Fed made as it left rates on hold — the U.S. central bank made only a token gesture; announcing that as mortgage-related debt it holds on its balance sheet comes to term and is repaid it will replace it  with new, mostly long-term, Treasuries.

That keeps its quantitative easing policy essentially static, a strategy dubbed “quantitative neutrality” by Northern Trust economist Asha Bangalore.

So, given that key measures of inflation are trending towards zero, that businesses are reluctant to hire, that corporations and banks alike are sitting on cash and that the outlook for the recovery, if indeed we want to call it that, is dimming, why such a feeble response?

In the end monetary policy has to have a political consensus behind it, and there is arguably less of that now than at any time in my 20 years of following markets.

Stocks, bonds and the earnings season dance

A look at company earnings implies it is a great time to be a corporation in America, but for investors a rising savings rate and the threat of deflation mean that, ugly and risky as they are, government bonds looks good in comparison to stocks.

So far it has been a pretty remarkable earning season in the U.S. Almost 80 percent of companies reporting have beaten analysts’ estimates and profits among the largest companies are up more than 40 percent on the same period last year.
Perhaps even more remarkably, companies are managing to trouser a record 10.2 cents in every dollar of revenue after operating costs, according to Standard & Poor’s.

That’s the rub – profitability growth is outpacing revenue growth, which has been 9.0 percent, implying that the gangbusters pace of profits is more due to cost cutting and efficiencies than a sustainable expansion in anyone’s business model.

‘Random refereeing’ of economy is not what’s stagnating it

Apparently, the U.S. economy is being held back by massive uncertainty over new regulation, future taxation and the deficit and how it will be handled, a state so frightening and confusing that investors won’t invest, businesses won’t hire and nervous consumers have taken to their beds.

That, at least, is the account of Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher, who, in a speech last week, blamed fear of the arbitrary exercise of power by those in government for slowing the economy and putting those who make, employ and spend in a “defensive crouch.”

“For some time now in internal discussions with my colleagues at the Fed, I have ascribed the economy’s slow growth pathology to what I call ‘random refereeing’ — the current predilection of government to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game of recovery,” Fisher told business leaders in San Antonio.

from The Great Debate (Commentary):

Commodities should be short-term investments

Commodity indices and exchange-traded products (ETPs) should be regarded as short- to medium-term investments rather than long-term strategies, as a quick glance at performance over the last 10 years shows.

Their value lies in providing simplicity and liquidity for retail investors and institutions such as pension funds, which do not want the complexity of managing futures positions with their daily margin adjustments and rollovers.

They also permit institutions and retail investors forbidden from investing in derivatives to gain exposure indirectly by repackaging derivatives as swap transactions or embedding them in structured notes, which resemble debt or equity securities.

High unemployment and the education deficit

graduation photo USE THISThe following is a guest post by Bruce Yandle, distinguished adjunct professor of economics with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and dean emeritus of the College of Business & Behavioral Science at Clemson University. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Last month’s report on U.S. employment growth brought no cheer to job-seekers with a high school education.

In June 2010, the unemployment rate for adults 25 or older with a high school diploma was 10 percent. Whereas unemployment among college educated adults was 4.4 percent. (Overall unemployment was 9.5 percent.)

from MacroScope:

What are the risks to growth?

Mike Dicks, chief economist and blogger at Barclays Wealth, has identified what he sees as the three biggest problems facing the global economy, and conveniently found that they are linked with three separate regions.

First, there is the risk that U.S., t consumers won't increase spending. Dicks notes that the increase in U.S. consumption has been "extremely moderate" and far less than after previous recessions. His firm has lowered is U.S. GDP forecast for 2011 to 2.7 percent from a bit over 3 percent.

Next comes the euro zone. While the wealth manager is not looking for any immediate collapse in EMU, Dicks reckons that without the ability to devalue, Greece and other struggling countries won't see any great improvement in competitiveness. Germany, in the meantime, has sped up plans to cut its own deficit.  It leaves the Barclays Wealth's euro zone GDP forecast at just 1 percent for next year.

from The Great Debate UK:

EU stress tests: for banks or governments?

- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Worries about Europe’s banking system go back at least to 2007, but whereas the U.S. (and UK) banks appear to have weathered the storm, there are fears that for European banks the worst may lie ahead.  Concerns centre on four areas.

First, there are obvious worries about Greece and the other small countries facing debt problems, notably Portugal and Ireland, where the local banks have lent heavily to their governments and in addition may need to make provision for a substantial build-up in the level of bad debts in their respective corporate sectors as their economies struggle through the recession.

In praise of default

Join us for a live chat today at 1 p.m. ET with James, who will be taking questions about his piece.

Call me a default-ista.

For a huge number of borrowers, be they U.S. homeowners or the sovereign nation of Greece, a default or radical rescheduling of debt might just be the best, most practicable option.

More to the point, default in many of these situations may be not just in the best interests of the debtor but of the economy as a whole.

Inflation or Deflation, why settle for just one?

If you are trying to decide whether to fret about inflation or deflation, don’t bother: you may just get both.

Yes, in the spirit of these austere times, it is a two for one offer; deflation comes first, followed by an almighty inflation after central banks press the “go nuclear” button on the quantitative easing machine.

It seems clear that, at least in the near term, the stars are aligned for deflation. Rather than lancing a massive debt bubble, policy-makers have added to it and the intense pressure to clean balance sheets has spread from corporations and households to nations.

from The Great Debate UK:

Pranab Bardhan on the economic rise of China and India

In its May economic outlook, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development projected upward growth outlooks for BRIC countries Brazil, Russia, India and China -- the world's four largest emerging economies.

Strong growth in those economies is helping to pull other countries out of recession, the OECD said. The Paris-based organisation projects that China’s GDP growth will exceed 11 percent for 2010, and anticipates that India's real GDP growth will be 8.3 percent. Russia's GDP growth is expected to be 5.5 percent, and Brazil's is projected at 6.5 percent. By comparison, the OECD projects that the Euro area will see 1.5 percent real GDP growth, while the UK will see a 2.2 percent growth.

The "BRIC" acronym was created by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill in 2001 to mark a shift of economic power from the West. In June 2009, the BRIC leaders met in Yekaterinburg, Russia, for a summit, which was seen as the beginning of a geopolitical alliance, although their economies are very different: Brazil's economy is based on agriculture; Russia's on energy exports; India's on services and China's on manufacturing. At that time, the BRIC countries accounted for 40 percent of the world's population and about 15 percent of its economy.

  •