MacroScope

Geithner’s gauntlet: Social Security is a “separate process” from fiscal cliff talks

Social Security should not be part of the current negotiations over the U.S. budget – that was the message from outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the weekend. During a veritable tour of Sunday shows aimed at addressing negotiations surrounding the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions, Geithner told ABC News’ “This Week”:

What the president is willing to do is to work with Democrats and Republicans to strengthen Social Security for future generations so Americans can approach retirement with dignity and with the confidence they can retire with a modest guaranteed benefit.

But we think you have to do that in a separate process so that our seniors aren’t – don’t face the concern that we’re somehow going to find savings in Social Security benefits to help reduce the other deficit.

Could the private sector stage a stimulus plan?

Since the financial crisis, the federal government has implemented a fiscal stimulus plan and the Federal Reserve took to the road of monetary stimulus, actively seeking new routes to revive the U.S. economy.

The private sector, however, has been laggard in adding its muscle to the revival efforts. Private firms have added employees, but very cautiously, and wages are stagnant. Meanwhile, a huge amount of cash sits idle on corporate balance sheets.

“Capital expenditure plans are being retrenched,” notes Dan Heckman, senior fixed income strategist and senior portfolio manager at Minneapolis, Minnesota-based US Bank, with $80 billion in assets under management. “Most major corporations are sitting on tons of cash. They have no appetite for borrowing and credit line utilization is at all-time lows.”

The trouble with the Fed’s calendar guidance on rates

Sometimes, communication can be the art of what not to say. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took pains this week to make clear that the central bank’s indication that it will likely keep rates low until mid-2015 does not mean it expects growth to remain weak for that long.

By pushing the expected period of low rates further into the future, we are not saying that we expect the economy to remain weak until mid-2015; rather, we expect – as we indicated in our September statement – that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

The comments speak to a key problem with the notion of calendar-based forward guidance, first adopted by the Fed in August of 2011: each time officials push the date further into the future, they risk dampening financial market sentiment, thereby having the opposite effect to the stimulus it intended.

How big will the Fed’s QE3 end up being?

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Polling data courtesy of Chris Reese

We’ll know it when we see it. That’s essentially been the Federal Reserve’s message since it launched an open-ended bond-buying stimulus plan that it says will remain in place for as long “the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Which begs the question: how much larger is the central bank’s $2.9 trillion balance sheet likely to get?

Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s October meeting point to solid support within the central bank for ongoing monetary easing via asset purchases well into 2013.

A number of participants indicated that additional asset purchases would likely be appropriate next year after the conclusion of the maturity extension program in order to achieve a substantial improvement in the labor market.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]

Roaring auto sector could charge up U.S. growth

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Economists love motor analogies, and for good reason: they are very useful in illustrating the ebb and flow of economies. In coming months, maybe even years, the help from the auto sector could become a lot more literal, argues Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics in London. In particular, he expects rising sales following years of depressed consumer spending on vehicles in the wake of the Great Recession could add as much as 0.25 percentage point to U.S. gross domestic product growth per year over the next four years. Here’s why:

The rise in new vehicles sales in September, to 14.9 million from 14.5 million in August, was significant as the number of new vehicles being purchased is now higher than the number being scrapped. This comes after four years in which the total number of vehicles in operation has been declining.

That fall was because when the recession hit and credit seized up, both households and businesses had little choice but to run their existing vehicles for longer. It is possible that 10 million fewer new vehicles have been sold than would have been the case if there was no recession.

Resurging inflation to put a dampener on India’s festive spend

A perfect storm may be gathering over India’s economy, brought on by a peak in inflation just as the country’s festive season, which is critical to consumer demand, gets under way.

Purse strings are loosened most in India during this season, which began with Navratri on Oct. 15 and will linger on with the festival of lights, Diwali, in a couple of weeks and culminate with Christmas.

Navratri, which roughly translates to “nine nights,” and Diwali shopping in India is as important to the country’s retailers and manufacturers as Thanksgiving and New Year holiday shopping is to those in the U.S.

Unsaving the U.S. economy

The U.S. savings rate sank last month to its lowest since November, official data showed this week, in a sour reminder of how the economy is still dangerously exposed to any financial downturn or other shocks like the fiscal cliff. Following are some facts about this usually overlooked indicator:

* The U.S. saving rate is basically the amount of dollars Americans are able to save from their wages after spending and paying taxes, as a percentage of income. In September the rate was at 3.3 percent, a drop from 3.7 percent the previous month and the lowest since 3.2 percent in November 2011.

* The 3.3 percent rate is much worse than the healthy 8.1 percent average of the 1950s and 60s, the Golden Age of the U.S. post-war economy. It is also below the 5.5 percent average of the 1990s.

When interest rates rise, credit growth should… accelerate?

Latin America has defied one of the most elementary rules of macroeconomics in the past decade, Citigroup economists Joaquin Cottani and Camilo Gonzalez found in a report.

Lower interest rates reduce the cost of money and therefore should encourage businesses and consumers to borrow, as we’ve repeatedly heard from analysts and government officials for decades. Puzzlingly enough, credit growth accelerated after central banks in countries like Brazil and Peru raised rates, and slowed when borrowing costs fell. Why is that?

The keyword here is confidence. In this commodity-exporter region, with a long history of deep, painful crises caused by currency devaluations and global downturns, perhaps it’s worth paying more attention to what happens abroad than to the cost of money – and how the global background might affect the local business cycle.

Spain’s house of cards

Looking at some of the recent trends in the euro zone debt market, one could be forgiven for thinking the region is doing alright.

Spanish and Italian funding costs have come down sharply. Data from the European Central Bank on Thursday showed consumers and firms put money back into Spanish and Greek banks in September. And there are budding signs that foreign investors are venturing back to the Spanish sovereign debt market. As one trader this week put it, the market is “healing”:

Liquidity is coming back, liquidity meaning the market can digest larger customer repositioning and flows again.