MacroScope

Could renewed U.S. economic strength turn the fiscal cliff into a fiscal ramp?

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The term ‘fiscal cliff’ has now safely transitioned from economic jargon to popular cliché. But how worried should Americans be about the growth-stunting mélange of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions set to begin kicking in at the start of next year?

Economists widely believe that if Congress fails to come to some sort of agreement on the budget, the U.S. economy would plunge into a deep recession. RBS economist Michelle Girard, however, thinks a recent pick up in U.S. economic activity could offset some of the cliff-related weakness.

While uncertainty over the fiscal cliff dominates most conversations, the relative strength of the underlying U.S. economy should not be forgotten. The expansion is today on firmer footing today than at any point in the past three to four years. No major economic imbalance exists. Moreover, headwinds that have hindered the pace of recovery are fading.

The bottom line is that the US economy may be better positioned to withstand greater fiscal drag than many currently believe. While going over the so-called fiscal cliff (in its entirety) would almost certainly lead to a sharp contraction in economic activity in early 2013, the improving economic base we now observe leads us to conclude that such a downturn would likely be short-lived.

The latest sign of strength came from a report showing housing starts surged 15 percent to their strongest levels in more than four years, adding to optimism following September’s drop in the jobless rate to 7.8 percent.

Ambling through the archives: Don’t blame the deficit, 1983 edition

The battle over the amount and nature of government spending is the focus of the current U.S.presidential campaign and is unlikely to go away even after the November election is well in the rear view mirror.

In such a setting, a paper presented by economist Albert M. Wojnilower at the October 1983 Bald Peak Conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, sounds as timely today as it did then. Wojnilower, then chief economist at First Boston, prepared his “Don’t Blame the Deficit” talk as a commentary on “Implications of the Government Deficit for U.S. Capital Formation,” a paper by Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of political economy at Harvard.

Here is the jist of Wojnilower’s argument, made almost three decades ago when the Ronald Reagan presidency was almost three years old: If the United States is under-investing, the “villain” is not the Federal budget deficit, he said.

Sustainable full employment is within reach: Green Party U.S. presidential candidate Stein

As Americans get ready or tonight’s presidential debate, there’s one candidate they won’t be seeing on television and may not even have heard of: Jill Stein, a Harvard-trained doctor and Green Party candidate. Stein is promising a Green New Deal that she says could create more than 20 million jobs, 16 million through a government-sponsored program for full employment and millions more due to the increase in demand that would come from the new investments. She wants to expand Medicare coverage for all Americans and sharply reduce military spending, and says her policies would reduce the deficit by boosting tax revenues. She spoke to Reuters recently by telephone. What follows is an abbreviated transcript of the interview.

The Green Party does not appear to have realistic chance to win a major election at the moment. What is the goal of your candidacy?

An election is a wonderful time when people get involved and have a much broader conversation than usual. My hope is that we can drive some really critical solutions that already have majority support from the American public, that we can actually drive them into a political system that has been terribly hijacked and disconnected from the interests of everyday people.

Attempting to measure what QE3 will and won’t do

Deutsche Bank economists have tried to quantify what effect QE3 is likely to have on the U.S. economy. For an assumed $800 billion of purchases of both agency securities and Treasuries through the end of next year, the economy gets a little over half a percentage point lift over the course of two years and a net 500,000 jobs – or about two months’ worth of job creation in a typical strong recovery from recession.

In a model-driven assessment based on the past impact of QE1 and QE2, Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Peter Hooper says this is what the Federal Reserve printing another $800 billion — slightly less than the gross domestic product of Australia — will do:

1. Reduce the 10-year Treasury yield by 51 bps

2. Raise the level of real GDP by 0.64%

3. Lower the unemployment rate by 0.32 percentage points

4. Increase house prices by 1.82%

5. Boost the S&P 500 by 3.06%, and

6. Raise inflation expectations by 0.25%

Apart from the fact we are more likely to win a lottery jackpot of epic proportions than see all of those predictions come true to that degree of precision, the pressing question is whether a 0.32 percentage point reduction in the unemployment rate would be significant enough for the Fed to stop printing money. After all, the Fed tied whether or not it would be satisfied by the results of QE3 to a substantial improvement in the labour market.

U.S. recession signal from the Philly Fed

Will the U.S. economy continue coasting along at a slow but steady clip or does it actually risk tipping into a new recession? Tom Porcelli, economist at RBC Capital, says he’s concerned about a new trough from a little-watched Philadelphia Fed survey of coincident indicators.

Here’s another indicator flashing red. The three-month trend for the Philly coincident index (which captures state employment and wage metrics) fell to a fresh cycle low of +24 in August – it was +80 just three months ago.

A reading this low historically bodes ill for future economic activity. Looking back at the last five downturns, this index averaged +41 three months prior to the official start of the recession. We have decidedly crossed that threshold.

Lucky enough to pay taxes

“People. People who pay taxes, Are the luckiest people in the world …” That may not be exactly how the lyrics, most memorably sung by Barbra Streisand in the musical “Funny Girl” actually go, but one could argue that one is lucky to be well off enough to pay federal income taxes.

A research note from Stone & McCarthy Research Associates economist Nancy Vanden Houten wonders why “obsessing about taxpayers with no federal income tax liability” has become a focus of the U.S. presidential campaign.

We think the emphasis is misplaced. A more appropriate question to ask is how much all taxpayers benefit from provisions of the tax code.

Krugman’s legacy: Fed gets over fear of commitment

Jonathan Spicer contributed to this post

An important part of the Federal Reserve’s recent decision to embark on an open-ended quantitative easing program was a fresh indication that the central bank will leave rates low even as the recovery gains steam. According to the September policy statement:

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee expects that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

Just why does the Fed believe promising to keep policy stimulus in place for a long time might help struggling economies recovery? Mike Feroli, chief U.S.economist and resident Fed watcher at JP Morgan, traces the first inklings of the idea to the work of Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist and New York Times columnist.

Safe-haven Canada

The European crisis has thinned the ranks of countries considered safe-havens for investors, and may be contributing to an increase in foreign ownership of Canadian assets. Canada, whose comparatively robust banking sector helped it weather the 2008-2009 financial crisis better than many peers, saw capital inflows in July that helped reverse a June decline, according to the latest figures.

Foreigners resumed their net purchases of Canadian securities in July, taking on C$6.67 billion ($6.88 billion) after having reduced their holdings by C$7.76 billion in June, Statistics Canada said on Monday. Canadian authorities have said foreign investors view Canada as a safe haven. So far this year foreigners have made C$41.23 billion in net purchases, a substantial amount though down from C$54.31 billion seen in the first seven months of 2011.

According to Charles St-Arnaud, economist at Nomura, stocks saw their biggest inflow since February 2011:

Olympics provided gold for Team GB, but not the economy

Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic teams may have brought home more medals than organisers had dreamed possible but the Games themselves have probably failed to lift the economy as much as the government had hoped.

The country’s gross domestic product will grow 0.6 percent in the current quarter, according to the latest Reuters poll, revised down from a 0.7 percent prediction in an August poll.

That is enough to drag Britain out of its second recession in four years but most of the bounceback is from an extra working day and better weather in the quarter.

Not enough jobs? Blame the government

The U.S. labor market has been adding jobs for two-and-a-half years, helping bring down the jobless rate from a peak of 10 percent in late 2009 to the current 8.1 percent rate. But recently, job growth has slowed to under 100,000 per month – not enough to keep the jobless rate on a downward path. Heidi Shierholz at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington says this leaves the U.S. economy well short of achieving its full capacity:

We’d need to add around 350,000 jobs a month to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate in three years.

With just 96,000 jobs created in August, we’re still a long way off from that kind of strength – and a steady flow of job losses from the public sector isn’t helping. State and local governments have been slashing public payrolls to balance their budgets. In August, the public sector lost 7,000 jobs, but that was mere drop in the bucket of public sector job losses that now total 680,000 lost jobs since August 2008. The total impact is even larger, says Shierholz.