James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Morgan Stanley: No V-shaped recovery

May 22, 2009 18:45 UTC

Economist Richard Berner lays out the case why the recovery won’t be a pretty sight:

First, financial conditions will stay relatively restrictive. Losses are still rising at lenders, limiting risk appetite and balance sheet capacity, and thus restraining the availability and boosting the cost of credit.  A slow cleaning up of lenders’ balance sheets will keep lending capacity low and the cost of using it comparatively high, and increased regulatory oversight will reinforce that restraint.  We think that such lingering restraint will affect all credit-sensitive areas of the economy, including housing, consumer durables, capital spending and working capital for businesses large and small.  As evidence, the National Federation of Independent Businesses just reported that, in April, credit was harder to obtain by small businesses than at any time in the past 29 years.  And while loan-to-value ratios at auto finance companies rose slightly in April – to 89% from 86% in January-February – required downpayments were still more than double what lenders wanted last year.

Moreover, the lags between the change in financial conditions and the economy will prevent rapid progress.  To be sure, as Morgan Stanley interest rate strategist Laurence Mutkin argues, when more capital comes into the financial system, and securitization revives, competition will erode the high rates lenders are able to charge for the use of their balance sheets today.   In our view, however, that time may be far off, and both the scars from the crisis and the regulatory response to it probably will keep those costs permanently higher than pre-crisis norms.

Second, the imbalance between supply and demand in housing is still significant and likely will remain a drag on home prices and housing activity into 2010.
The single-family vacancy rate in existing homes is double the 1.2% historical average through 2004.  Given the persistently tight financing backdrop, vacancies might undershoot that old 1.2% norm for a while to bring down the supply/demand imbalance quickly, especially as foreclosures rise again.  Consequently, prospective buyers need to start occupying roughly 750,000 single-family vacant homes before the housing market and home prices stabilize.  In turn, this implies that new and existing home sales must rise by roughly 20-25% from the current pace.  Likewise, in commercial real estate, vacancy rates and cap rates are rising and rents are falling.

Third, consumers have only begun the process of deleveraging and repairing their balance sheets and saving positions, and we believe that the personal saving rate, currently at 4%, will rise to 7-10% in the next few years. This process will mean slower growth in US demand.  Some argue that pent-up demand for vehicles and durables is strong following the recent retrenchment in sales.  We disagree.  It’s true that to maintain the stock of vehicles on the road (245 million light vehicles) given normal scrappage would require about 13 million vehicles sold annually.  But with financing constrained, we think that consumers can endure 3-4 years of sales below those levels, since we spent the last 13 above them, especially with 15% more light vehicles on the road than licensed drivers.

Finally, the breadth of the recession limits the cushion from any stronger sectors. For example, while growth appears to be improving in Asia, the global recession will limit US exports.  Unlike the experience since the crisis began nearly two years ago, in which net exports contributed more than a full percentage point on average to real US growth, we expect that the cyclical contribution to US growth from overseas activity will be flat to down over the next 18 months.

America’s AAA bond rating

May 22, 2009 18:05 UTC

Will America’s lose its AAA S&P bond rating? Not anytime soon, says the econ team at Wachovia:

Any downgrade to the United States’ bond rating is not imminent. Some analysts speculated that any downgrade, should one even occur, probably would not happen for 3 or 4 years. In response to the concerns over the government’s fiscal position, Treasury Secretary Geithner said that the Obama administration is committed to bringing the budget deficit down “to a sustainable level over the medium term.”

Concerns over the U.S. fiscal outlook are not likely to disappear just because the Treasury Secretary uttered a few reassuring words. Therefore, the dollar could remain under downward pressure, at least in the near term. However, the scrutiny on the U.S. fiscal outlook will probably fade over time, and investors will likely start to re-focus on growth prospects.

Bernanke vs. Bond Market Vigilantes

May 22, 2009 17:10 UTC

Relying on the Fed cannot be the sum total of an economic policy to increase economic growth. In fact, current Fed policy may well be saving the U.S. banking system, but it is hardly setting the stage for a robust economic recovery. Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit) notices the rise in 10-year yields (bold is mine):

The Fed is trying to fight a force of nature—the bond market—and they are bound to lose. Purchasing long-maturity Treasuries, mortgage-backed securities or corporate bonds in an  to keep their yields low is a self-defeating strategy …  Ultimately, inflation and inflation expectations are what drive bond yields. If the Fed buys too many bonds, rising inflation expectations will kill the world’s demand to own bonds, and yields will rise. … So far this year, the yield on 10-year Treasuries has risen from 2.05% to 3.4%, and that is just a down payment on the eventual rise. … As politicians should know (though they refuse to believe), the economy is not something that can be easily manipulated according to their whims or preferences. As the Fed should know (but amazingly they seem to ignore this), long-term interest rates are set by market forces, not by the Fed’s Open Market Committee, whose only job is to attempt to control very short-term interest rates. Rising 10-year yields will put a floor under conforming mortgage rates, which have most likely already hit bottom. Yields on jumbo mortgages still have room to fall

Indeed, one shouldn’t mistake a healthier banking system for an economic recovery, so says David Goldman (Inner Workings bl)og, noting the price rise in commercial MBS:

Distressed assets yield enough to compensate for high losses elsewhere. The zombie strategy, in short, is working out just dandily, thank you. This means: No collapse of US national credit for the time being, and lower volatility (hedging costs) overall — but NOT economic growth.

Is unemployment finally biting consumer confidence?

May 22, 2009 14:23 UTC

Consumer confidence has strengthened as the prospects of a Great Depression 2.0 have seemingly subsided. But it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire thanks to rising unemployment.  And maybe that explains these plunging consumer confidence numbers from Rasmussen:

The Rasmussen Investor Index dropped 15 points on Friday, the largest single day decline ever recorded in its seven-year history. The drop caps a week of extreme volatility for the Index and now shows investor confidence at the lowest level in two months. The culprit—both for the volatility and the current low level of confidence—is shifting perceptions on where the economy is heading next. Today, just 24% of investors say the economy is getting better while 47% say it is getting worse. A couple of days ago, the outlook was much less pessimistic: 34% better and 40% worse.

Another mustard seed

May 22, 2009 14:13 UTC

The Cleveland Fed likes what it sees in the steepening yield curve, but no guarantees:

More generally, a flat curve indicates weak growth, and conversely, a steep curve indicates strong growth. One measure of slope, the spread between ten-year Treasury bonds and three-month Treasury bills, bears out this relation, particularly when real GDP growth is lagged a year to line up growth with the spread that predicts it.

Cap-and trade? Call me in 2010. Maybe 2011

May 22, 2009 14:07 UTC

I think political analyst Dan Clifton of Strategas, an institutional research firm, has it about right concerning the prospects for a cap-and-trade climate bill passing Congress this year:

We do not believe the cap and trade bill being shepherded through the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Rep. Waxman will be signed into law this year, or even next year. Although the bill is expected to make it through the Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday night, after recess Waxman will begin talks with Ways and Means Chair Rangel, who does not see climate change legislation as a priority and is reportedly not convinced that cap and trade is the best option. We note there are 8 committees with jurisdiction over the bill, including Agriculture, chaired by Rep. Peterson who is insisting on his own mark up and has concerns about the proposal. That being said, with international climate talks slated for through the summer leading up to December’s Copenhagen meeting, it will remain a hot topic through the recess as members defend their positions to voters that in many cases lack clarity on the issue, the costs and the emission permit allocation politics.

Me: For Republicans, this is the ideal scenario. The bill doesn’t pass but it remains alive as an election issue in the 2010 congressional midterm elections.  From my conversations with folks over there, it is clear to me that they think it is a HUGE winner for them. And the Dems might not disagree.


With reference to the above article, the short article below explains the scenario in the Asian Climate Change context.

“Green Energy : A Paradigm Shift in Sustainability”

Green energy is not something new since the discovery of the depletion of the ozone layer and global climate change as a direct impact of green house effect on a worldwide scale.

Various international conventions/agreements on the reduction of green house effect will remain forever on glossy papers if countries around the world are not serious in committing themselves towards real implementation within national boundary.

Political will power, or even real politics for that matter alone, is insufficient in promoting green energy as attested by the economics of reality in both developed and developing countries.

A paradigm shift is needed in forging a new instrument of international co-operation within the wider framework of Free Trade Agreements and joint conviction shared by stakeholders such as the OECD, major banking bodies(i.e. IMF, World bank, ADB) and leading industrial/corporate entities.

Jeong Chun-phuoc
[an an advocate of Competitive & Strategic Environmenting]

Posted by JEONG CHUN PHUOC | Report as abusive

China: U.S. climate bill too wimpy

May 22, 2009 13:55 UTC

I will admit that when I read the headline “China Looks for Big Cuts in Emissions” in the WSJ today, I thought the country had radically shifted policy and was joining the cap-and-trade crowd. My bad. The Reuters hed is more accurate: “China tells rich nations to cut emissions by 40 percent.” (Read the story.) I think it is more likely that the U.S. will eventually slap a carbon emissions tafiff on Chinese goods than it will accede to such demands, not that I think the former is too likely either.