The Great Debate

Uncertainty paralyzes U.S. banking system

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Extreme uncertainty about the economic outlook and the depth of the recession has paralyzed normal lending activity by commercial banks in the United States and elsewhere. Even as the Federal Reserve has added liquidity and boosted bank reserves, the credit creation process has remained stalled as banks struggle to identify good borrowers willing and able to repay in a wide range of future economic conditions.

The attached chart is adapted from the Federal Reserve’s weekly H.8 release on “Assets and Liabilities of Commercial Banks in the United States” (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_CRDT1108.gif).

It shows the ratio of loans, leases and interbank lending (risk assets) to vault cash, reserves and Treasury securities (safe assets) held by U.S. commercial banks. In essence it shows the commercial banking system’s appetite for risk and capacity for credit creation.

Credit is clearly cyclical. But the period since 1994 has witnessed a huge increase in credit extension and a massive rise in balance sheet risk overlaid with modest cyclical variations. Following a brief hiatus during the downturn of 2001-2003, explosive credit creation resumed and hit new heights in early 2008.

Light at the end of the tunnel

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The opinions expressed are his own –

After more than a year of denial, misdirected policies and a steadily worsening outlook, the past fortnight has witnessed a marked improvement. For the first time, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the economy faces a recession rather than a prolonged slump, and recovery could get underway in H2 2009.

Markets share some of that optimism. The Dow Jones Industrial Index has risen 15.5 percent over four consecutive sessions, the most sustained rally since April 2008. It is not yet time to break out the champagne. But there are reasons to start looking through short-term weakness to focus on an eventual, albeit modest, recovery by the end of next year.

Deflation is a dangerous distraction (part 2)

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –
For part one of this column, please click here.

The current downturn and fears about falling prices are prompting a plethora of historical comparisons with previous periods, many with the Great Depression of 1929-1933, some based on a very shaky understanding of the historical record.


The attached chart provides a long-term overview of developments in both U.S. output and prices for the last century using official data published by the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To remove some of the month-to-month volatility, the chart shows the twelve-month percent change in both series for a rolling three-month period, providing a better indication of the underlying trend (http://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/us_business_cycle.pdf).

Biofuels run into trouble

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Despite a promising start, the U.S. experiment with renewable fuels is facing a serious challenge next year. Falling gasoline consumption, lower pump prices and contradictions within the federal government program are intensifying existing pressures on ethanol distillers and farmers already struggling to cope with over-capacity and collapsing margins.


Between 2000 and 2007, production of fuel ethanol quadrupled from 1.6 billion to 6.5 billion gallons, and the industry is on course to distill a record 9.3 billion gallons in 2008.

Ethanol production is not really economic at oil prices below about $60-70 per barrel (prices of grains and fats for ethanol conversion and processing costs are too high relative to oil). So the original boost to ethanol came from its use as an oxygenating additive in reformulated gasoline, rather than as fuel in its own right, when a number of states banned the use of MTBE.

G20 summit shows lack of resolve

John Kemp Great Debate–John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The opinions expressed are his own–

The G20 summit must be considered a disappointing failure, even by the relatively low expectations set for the event. Leaders produced a long agenda of further studies, reports and work, but failed to provide a clear direction or tackle even the most fundamental decisions.

On the key issues, leaders displayed a worrying irresolution. Without unambiguous instructions from the top, discussions between finance ministers and officials will prove protracted and risk getting bogged down in detail. Negotiations between officials can fill in the details; they cannot make the kind of fundamental choices about strategic direction that leaders avoided at the weekend.

Quantitative easing has begun

johnkemp3– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

Quietly, without fanfare, the Federal Reserve has turned on the printing presses.  The central bank is flooding the market with enough excess liquidity to refloat the banking system — and hopes to generate an upturn in both economic activity and inflation in the next 12-18 months to prevent the economy falling into a prolonged slump.

Since the banking crisis intensified in September, the Fed has been rapidly expanding the credit side of its balance sheet, providing an ever-increasing array of facilities to support the financial system (repos, term auction credit, primary discount credit, broker-dealer credit, commercial paper funding, money market mutual fund liquidity and term securities lending).

TARP and Fed facilities unravel

johnkemp3–John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The opinions expressed are his own–

LONDON (Reuters) – Experience shows financial crises escalate very rapidly, and need a swift and decisive response from policymakers to break the cycle of panic. Time to reflect, craft thoughtful policies and consider long-term consequences is a luxury policymakers generally don’t have.

But the problem with bold ad hoc responses is they often have unintended consequences. Individual policy actions may prove inconsistent with one another, fail to achieve objectives, and store up larger problems for the longer term.

Global recession has begun

John Kemp — John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

LONDON (Reuters) – Yesterday’s bleak reports on the state of U.S and European manufacturing confirmed that a global recession has already begun.

The Institute of Supply Management (ISM)’s composite business activity indicator plunged for the second month to 38.9 – far below the 50-point threshold dividing expanding activity from a contraction, and the lowest level since September 1982 (see chart https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_ISM1108.gif).

Commodities and the Great Conundrum

John Kemp– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The views expressed are his own –

By John Kemp

LONDON (Reuters) – By driving up long-term real interest rates, the forthcoming flood of U.S Treasury borrowing threatens to crowd out the amount of capital for investing in other asset classes, creating a much tougher environment for commodity prices over the next two to three years.

Like many other asset classes, commodity prices have benefited from an influx of funds in recent years driven by three related factors:

The Fed as lender of first and only resort

John KempJohn Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

LONDON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve has unveiled a dizzying array of new lending and liquidity support facilities over the last six weeks, but the diminishing law of marginal returns already looks to have set in. Each new lending and liquidity facility announced by the Fed is providing a smaller boost to confidence than the last.

The market is increasingly focused on how the Treasury and the Fed will fund the ever-expanding array of facilities, and the huge overhang of very short-term paper that needs to be rolled over into longer-term securities in a market that already looks queasy about the forthcoming flood of notes.
Rather than multiplying the number of acronymned facilities further, restoring confidence now rests on solving two issues.

First, the market needs to see buyers for all this new Treasury paper that will have to be issued in the coming year.