MacroScope

The productively disinflationary American worker

Strong productivity may be good for an economy’s long-term growth prospects. But it’s not always great for workers in the near-run, since it literally means firms are squeezing more out of each employee. In reality, rapid productivity growth can make it harder for workers to get new jobs or bargain for raises.

The benefits of operating efficiently are obvious enough: Productive firms will have more money left over to invest, which should lead to more job creation in the future. Except lately, that future seems never to come, giving rise to the somewhat oxymoronic notion of a jobless recovery.

Millan Mulraine at TD Securities explains:

In many ways, the 2009 and 2002 economic rebounds are very similar in that both can be characterized as largely ‘jobless recoveries’. However, the compensating boost from capital investment – which was a defining feature of the 2003 economic recovery and a key underpinning for economic and productivity growth during the 2003-2007 period – has been largely missing during this cycle. The missing boost from capital investment activity has reinforced the subpar economic performance over the past two years, and will portend poorly for longer-term economic growth potential if the trend continues.

Productivity was very strong at the start of the recovery, but then lost steam as the rebound went on.

FRED Graph

Data on Wednesday showed productivity growth picking up again in the second quarter, posting a 1.6 percent increase that was more than double the first quarter’s pace.

Weak manufacturing orders tend to precede U.S. recessions

U.S. manufacturing activity shrank for a second straight month in July as recent economic weakness spilled into the third quarter, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s closely watched index. But that wasn’t the worst of it: new orders, a gauge of future business activity, also shrank for a second month, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

Tom Porcelli at RBC explains why the status quo may not be good enough to keep the economy expanding:

The historical record back to 1955 suggests a rather ominous outcome when ISM new orders remain at 48 or less for two straight months. In fully 75% of those instances we were hurtling toward recession. The recent headfakes occurred in 1995 during the mid-cycle slowdown and in 2003 shortly after the recession ended and when the housing boom was in its infancy. Our call remains that we’ll (barely) skirt a recession but with evidence mounting that the economic headwinds are placing significant downward pressure on economic output, we find it striking that forecasters – as bearish as we’ve been told they are – still expect growth to average 2.2% in the second half of the year.

U.S. bond bulls ready to charge after payrolls report, survey says

(Corrects to show CRT is not a primary dealer)

Bond bulls are ready to charge after Friday’s July U.S. employment data, according to a survey by Ian Lyngen, senior government bond strategist at primary dealer CRT Capital Group.

Says Lyngen:

Despite the vacation season and the multitude of ‘out of office’ responses we got, participation in this month’s survey was above-average and consistent with a market that’s engaged for the big policy/data events of the summer. As for the results of the survey, in a word: BULLISH.

Lyngen argued the survey results were the most bullish since November 2010, a point that was followed by a selloff that brought 10-year yields from 2.55 percent to 3.75 percent over the following four months.

U.S. payrolls ‘wild card’: public school teachers, employees

The “big wildcard” in making July payroll projections is the size of the swing in public school teachers and other school workers.

Because of the size of teacher layoffs and the effect of the July 4th holiday on the data, the July seasonal adjustment factor can vary significantly from one year to the next, and the variation can be extreme, says Ward McCarthy, managing director and chief financial economist at Jefferies & Co in New York.

Many public school teachers, in addition to some other public school employees, are hired on a ten-month calendar that runs from September through June, large-scale layoffs occurring in July and large-scale hiring occurring in September.

In India, what goes up must keep going up

With a faltering economy, political gridlock, high interest rates, delayed monsoons and an epic power outage that has plunged half its 1.2 billion population into darkness, optimism is a sparse commodity in India.

Just not when it comes to rising house prices.

‘What goes up a lot must keep going up’ was the conclusion from the very first Reuters Indian housing market poll this week. And it sounded very familiar.

Past experience shows that respondents to housing market polls – whether they be independent analysts, mortgage brokers, chartered surveyors – tend to cling to an optimistic tone even as trouble clearly brews below the surface.

Like over-hyped Olympian, Fed set to disappoint

Pity the Federal Reserve. Like an over-hyped Olympian, the U.S. central bank enters this week’s policy meeting with sky-high expectations and a high probability of disappointment.

Markets are salivating at the prospect of a decisive easing move when Fed policymakers emerge from their meeting on Wednesday. The S&P 500 is up 3.6 percent in the last four sessions as traders hold out hope the Fed will launch a third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, to blast the U.S. economy out of its funk. Stumbling job creation, manufacturing and spending, as well as a measly 1.5 percent GDP growth in the second quarter and serious spillover threats ahead from Europe’s debt crisis, all feed this thesis. Fed policymakers from Chairman Ben Bernanke on down the line to Cleveland Fed President Sandra Pianalto and James Bullard of St. Louis have also stoked the market with a more dovish tone the last little while. And yet, this is probably not the time for a big policy move.

Topping the list of reasons to disappoint – and to knock the market down to size – the Fed probably doesn’t want to front-run the July employment report that’s due on Friday, and which will give a fresh sense whether the spring-summer slump in the labor market is temporary or more permanent. Waiting until the Fed’s next scheduled meeting, Sept. 12-13, would give policymakers the added benefit of the August jobs report. And speaking of front-running, the U.S. central bank may not want to get out just ahead of the European Central Bank’s policy decision on Thursday. If, down the line, things get really ugly in Europe – or if the U.S. Congress sends the country off the so-called fiscal cliff – the Fed will probably want to have the QE3 bazooka ready in its arsenal.

Hints of recession in sleepy Richmond Fed data

It’s a report that gets little attention normally (We at Reuters geek out on Fed data a lot, and even we don’t write a story about it). But an unusually sharp contraction in the Richmond Fed’s services sector index for July caught the eye of some economists. The measure took a nosedive, falling to -11 this month, the lowest in over two years, from +11 in June.

Tom Porcelli at RBC says the plunge in new orders was downright scary:

Richmond Fed manufacturing got absolutely walloped in July. In fact, the all-important new orders component sank to an abysmal -25 from -7 in June and -1 two months ago. This is by far the weakest print since the recession. In fact, at no point has this metric been this low when we have not been in a recession.

To be sure, the data capture only two cycles prior to this one, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that the recent print is suggesting things could be much worse than advertised. We continue to hear how this year is “2011 all over again”, yet the data suggest it is materially worse.

Three years after last increase, business group calls for U.S. minimum wage hike

Bucking the usual tune of private sector lobbyists, a group called Business for a Fair Minimum Wage is calling for a hike in the minimum wage, saying it would boost business and the economy.

Business for a Fair Minimum Wage is a project of Business for Shared Prosperity, which describes itself as a national network of “forward thinking” business owners and executives.

The last step of a three-step federal minimum wage increase went into effect on July 24, 2009. The $7.25 an hour current minimum wage comes to just $15,080 a year for full-time work, below the poverty line.

Off the rails? Goldman lowers Q2 GDP ‘tracking’ estimate to 1.1 pct

Another round of bad news on the economy has prompted Goldman Sachs to shave another tenth of a percentage point off their already bleak second quarter U.S. GDP forecast.

The July Philadelphia Fed business activity index improved less than expected and remained “significantly negative,” pointing to a third month of contraction. Following news that June existing home sales were much weaker than forecast, Goldman Sachs economists lowered their Q2 GDP tracking estimate to 1.1 percent from 1.2 percent.

The 5.4 percent month-on-month decline in existing home sales in June, reported by the National Association of Realtors, was much weaker than the consensus expectation, the economists noted. The 4.37 million annualized rate of sales was also lower than expected despite upward revisions to the May sales figures.

Here come the downward U.S. GDP revisions again

It’s become an uncanny, almost seasonal pattern over the last few years: The economy perks up as a new year kicks into gear only to flail again by the time summer comes around.

It must be that time of year. A very weak U.S. retail sales report for June forced economists to again take an axe to their already meager forecasts for economic growth this year. Stephen Stanley at Pierpoint Securities, suggests the figures are beginning to dip dangerously close to contraction.

I have been near the bottom of the range of estimates on Q2 GDP for the last month or two and it seems like we are all chasing the data lower. Before today, I had about 1% for Q2 real GDP. The awful retail sales figures coupled with somewhat higher-than-expected inventories tally takes me down to +0.6%.