MacroScope

Corporate responsibility: it’s time to start investing those record profits and cash piles

Corporate profits and cash piles have never been higher. But it’s not just an economic imperative that firms get spending and investing, it’s their social and moral responsibility to do so.

Three of the four sectors that make up the economy got battered by the global financial crisis and Great Recession:

    - Households: millions of workers lost their jobs, households retrenched their finances and times got extremely tough - Governments: they rescued and guaranteed the global economy and financial system at a cost of trillions - Banks: often vilified for their role in causing the crisis and apparent lack of punishment or contrition, they’re being forced to undergo huge structural change that will cost them billions

The one sector that flourished – even more than banks (and bankers) – is the corporate sector. By some measures, it has never had it so good – profits, cash reserves and share prices have rarely been higher:

The problem is, hardly any of that is being reinvested and relatively few are enjoying the spoils. Management and shareholders are sitting pretty, thanks to dividend payments and share buybacks. According to financial market consultant and author Andrew Smithers, US companies invest barely twice as much as they  pay out to shareholders. In the 1970s that ratio was as high as 15:1.

Smithers argues this is largely down to the distorted and myopic monetary short-termism of management incentives.

Beware the bias in euro zone forecasts (again)

Next time you ask an economist a question about the euro zone, be sure to enquire where their head office is based.

London? New York? Expect a pessimistic response on euro zone matters.

Frankfurt? Paris? Happier days are coming soon for the currency union.

So that’s oversimplifying matters slightly – but as we’ve seen time over, institutions based outside the euro zone are likely to be gloomier about its prospects, and those based inside it are more likely to look on the bright side.

That pattern was clear to see in this week’s Reuters poll on the euro zone’s vulnerable quartet – Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Fed doves strike back


Now that Washington’s circus-like government shutdown has put a damper on hopes for stronger U.S. economic growth going into next year, dovish Federal Reserve officials again appear to have the upper hand in the way of policy commentary.

Take Eric Rosengren, the Boston Fed President who had been unusually quiet as the tapering debate gathered steam. In a speech in Vermont on Thursday, he returned to a familiar theme – the central bank still has plenty of firepower and should not be afraid to use it.

Unfortunately, most of the risks to the outlook remain on the downside. Concerns over untimely fiscal austerity here and abroad, and the possibility of problems once again emerging in parts of Europe, could cause the Federal Reserve to miss on both elements of its dual mandate – employment and inflation – through 2016.

Why is the Reserve Bank of India so quiet on the rupee?

 

When nobody’s listening, sometimes it pays to shout from the rooftops.

Based on the rupee’s daily pasting, the Reserve Bank of India might do well to look to the European Central Bank’s strong verbal defense of the euro just over a year ago.

In July last year ECB President Mario Draghi declared he would do “whatever it takes” to safeguard the euro’s existence.

That unexpectedly candid comment, uttered at a moment of rising market tension, wasn’t followed by concrete policy action. But markets took heed.

Obama’s second chance to reshape the Fed

Lost in the bizarre Yellen vs. Summers tug-of-war into which the debate over the next Federal Reserve Chairman has devolved, is the notion that President Barack Obama is getting a second shot at revamping the U.S. central bank.

The perk of a two-term president, Obama will get to appoint another three, potentially four officials to the Fed’s influential seven-member board of governors in Washington. This may buy the president some political wiggle room when it comes to his pick for Fed chair, since he might be able to placate Republicans with one or two “concession” appointments. Every Fed governor gets a permanent voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Elizabeth Duke, the last George W. Bush appointee, is already on her way out. So is Sarah Bloom Raskin, who after a relatively short stint at the board is moving to the Treasury, to be Jack Lew’s Deputy Secretary. Then there’s the awkward suspicion that, if Obama passes up Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, by far the favorite for the top spot, she will also step down after a long career in the Federal Reserve system, including many years as head of the San Francisco Fed.

A Marshall Plan for Greece

The spectacular failure of “expansionary austerity” policies has set Greece on a path worse than the Great Depression, according to a study from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Using their newly-constructed macroeconomic model for Greece, the Levy scholars recommend a recovery strategy similar to the Marshall Plan to increase public consumption and investment.

“A Marshall-type recovery plan directed at public consumption and investment is realistic and has worked in the past,” the authors of the report said.

Uncertain about the effects of uncertainty on jobs

Job number one at the Federal Reserve these days is to bring down high U.S. unemployment without sparking inflation. Job number two, it sometimes seems, is explaining just how unemployment got so high in the first place.

Two recent papers published by the San Francisco Fed offer what look like opposite takes on the topic.

“(S)tates in which businesses cited poor sales also registered disproportionately sharp drops in jobs and household spending,” wrote Princeton University professor Atif Mian and University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Amir Sufi in a February Economic Letter.

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.

What’s a Fed to do? Taper talk persists despite missed jobs, inflation targets

As the Federal Reserve meets this week, unemployment is still too high and inflation remains, well, too low. That makes some investors wonder why policymakers are talking about curtailing their asset-buying stimulus plan. True, job growth has averaged a solid 172,000 net new positions per month over the last year, going at least some way to meeting the Fed’s criteria of substantial improvement for halting bond purchases.

So, either policymakers see brighter skies ahead or they want to get out of QE3 for other reasons they may rather not air too publicly: worries about efficacy or possible financial market bubbles.

“I don’t think the data dependent emphasis is the only ball the Fed is focusing on when mulling over the pace and extent of asset purchases,” says Thomas Lam, chief economist at OSK-DSG.

MacroScope presents: ask the economist

MacroScope is pleased to announce the launch of ‘Ask the Economist,’ which will give our readers an opportunity to directly ask questions of top experts in the field. We are honored that Michael Bryan, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, has agreed to be our first guest. In his role, Bryan is responsible for organizing the Atlanta Fed’s monetary policy process. He was previously a vice president of research at the Cleveland Fed.

The process is simple. We give you a heads up on our upcoming featured economist. You tweet us your question using the hashtag #asktheeconomist, or via direct message if you prefer. We select a handful of the most interesting queries this week, ship them over to our economist du jour. She or he will then answer each one in writing and we will post their response as a blogpost. And of course, you’ll be cited for asking the pithy question.

We look forward to your questions and thank you in advance for participating.

Let the games begin.