MacroScope

Biggest indicator of the week: China GDP

It wasn’t very long ago that economic numbers out of Asia would barely register a blip on Wall Street’s radar screen. That’s not the case anymore. Commerzbank touts Chinese gross domestic product figures due out on Friday as the most important gauge of global economic health following last week’s disappointing U.S. employment report.

Writes economist Jörg Krämer in a research note:

China’s economy has continued to slow into 2012 largely on the back of deliberate policy measures. We expect growth of 8% year-on-year in Q1, down from 8.9% in the final quarter of 2011 (consensus 8.3%), which is consistent with our call for full-year growth of 7.5% in 2012.

Fixed investment in particular has slowed recently, to its weakest year-on-year rate since 2002 and will be the primary driver of the slowdown in GDP growth. Net exports also deteriorated in the quarter, with China recording a very large trade deficit of US$31bn in February.

A report on Tuesday offered some reason for optimism. China returned to an export-led trade surplus of $5.35 billion in March, suggesting a rebound in the global economy may be lifting overseas orders just in time to compensate for a slowdown in domestic demand.

 

Housing healing

More than six years after its spectacular collapse, the U.S. housing market – the laggard of the struggling economic recovery – may be poised for pickup, driven in part by an upswing in remodeling, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer thinks.

Gains are likely to be modest at first, and are subject to volatility since overall economic growth may well slow in the second half of this year. Also, given the deep hole housing has fallen into, the market is still far from a robust recovery, Meyer wrote in a note to clients drawn from recent research.

Still, some evidence points to the beginnings of an upswing. For one, data already indicate a rebound in spending on renovations. Remodeling will pick up steam as investors convert foreclosed properties into rentals, and homeowners who have held off doing repairs or additions decide the time is ripe, Meyer said.

A worker is a terrible thing to waste

How bad is the U.S. employment situation? The Labor Department’s tally for March, which showed only 120,000 new jobs were created, raised doubts about the sustainability of a recent pick up in job growth. But to get a broader sense of what things are really like it helps to put things in a longer-term perspective.

Even with the 3.6 million new jobs created during the recovery, some 5 million more are needed just to make up for all of the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. At March’s pace, it would take nearly four more years to get there – and that’s not accounting for population growth.

If job growth remains at tepid clip of around 150,000 a month, it would take five years for the jobless rate, which registered 8.2 percent in March, to fall to 6 percent, according to Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank economist Julie Hotchkiss.

Pirate economics at the Fed

Avast ye swabs! Maybe the disconnect between improving labor markets and sluggish economic growth that  has Federal Reserve policymakers scratching their heads makes sense if viewed through a pirate’s spyglass – with a lot of latitude, according to a top Fed official.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard sees the 8.3 unemployment rate continuing to fall at a sprightly pace. That’s even though Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has fretted the jobless rate’s precipitous tumble since August, when it was 9. 1 percent, doesn’t square with the relatively modest pace of growth.

Bernanke has explained that according to a rule of thumb that has currency among economists, Okun’s Law, the jobless rate shouldn’t  fall much if growth doesn’t exceed the economy’s long-run average. So he and others at the Fed find it hard to be confident a growth rate of around 2 percent – the forecast for the first three months of the year – can do much to boost hiring.

Spain: ¿Cómo se dice “contagion”?

It was not a good day for Spain.

The euro zone’s fourth largest economy had to pay dearer to borrow through medium-term bonds, a sign that concerns over the country´s fiscal problems was curbing appetite for its debt. It sold 2.6 billion euros of 2015, 2016 and 2020 paper – at the low end of the target range.

In contrast, Portugal’s 1 billion euros sale of 18-month treasury bills was a successful test of market appetite for the longest-dated debt since it took an international bailout. Appetite for short-dated paper has been especially supported by the one trillion euros of cheap three-year European Central Bank funding injected into the financial system since December.

The problem is that Spain is the latest country to come into the firing line of the euro zone debt crisis. This week’s tough budget was not enough to calm investor nerves and many fear too much austerity could choke an already struggling economy where unemployment rose to a staggering 22.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 – the highest in the European Union. Meanwhile, the government expects Spain’s public debt to jump in 2012 to its highest since at least 1990.

The new dovish minority at the Fed

Suddenly, it’s the two lone doves who find themselves on the outside of the Federal Reserve’s policy consensus. Until recently, it was the hawks who were in the minority. But minutes of the central bank’s March meeting suggest policymakers are becoming less keen to launch a fresh round of monetary stimulus as the U.S. economy improves.

They key difference came from the minutes’ characterization of officials’ inclinations toward a third round of quantitative easing or QE3.

Here is what the January minutes had said:

A few members observed that, in their judgment, current and prospective economic conditions – including elevated unemployment and inflation at or below the Committee’s objective – could warrant the initiation of additional securities purchases before long. Other members indicated that such policy action could become necessary if the economy lost momentum or if inflation seemed likely to remain below its mandate-consistent rate of 2 percent over the medium run.

Europe’s triple threat: bad banks, big debts, slow growth

The financial turmoil still dogging Europe is most often described as a debt crisis. But sovereign debt is only part of the problem, according to new research from Jay Shambaugh, economist at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The other two prongs of what he describes as three coexisting crises are the region’s troubled banks and the prospect of an imminent recession.

These problems are mutually reinforcing, and require a more forceful policy response than the authorities have delivered to date. In particular, Shambaugh advocates using tax policy to lower labor costs, fiscal stimulus from those economies strong enough to afford it, and more aggressive action from the European Central Bank:

It is possible that coordinated shifts in payroll and consumption taxes could aid the painful process of internal devaluation. The EFSF could be used to capitalize banks and to help break the sovereign / bank link. Fiscal support in core countries could help spur growth.  Finally, the ECB could provide liquidity to sovereigns and increase nominal GDP growth as well as allow slightly faster inflation to facilitate deleveraging and relative price adjustments across regions.

Gimme a P, gimme an M, gimme an I

If you have ever wondered why financial markets and economists are interested in purchasing managers indexes, here is why:

Stocks rally not sustainable: Prudential

Want the recent rally in stocks to last? Don’t count on it, says John Praveen of Prudential Financial. The Dow Jones industrial average is up over 20 percent since September, and has gained 7 percent since the start of the year. But Praveen sees too many headwinds for the boom to continue.

The pace of gains thus far in 2012 is likely to be unsustainable and volatility is likely to remain high as several downside risks remain. These include:

1) Greek risks: The second Greek bailout and debt restructuring deal are likely to be a short-term reprieve, with still high Greek debt/GDP burden and Greek elections due in April.  A negative election outcome with no clear mandate and/or a new government reneging on its commitments (to reduce debt) could potentially roil markets.

Employer of last resort, Arab Spring style

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The concept that the government should serve as an employer of last resort in times of economic stress was first floated by the late economist Hyman Minsky. Its modern-day proponents remain largely marginalized, despite the nation’s persistently high unemployment and the extreme damage to the job market that was done by the deepest recession in generations. 

But Ali Kadri, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, argues the policy, which works as an automatic stabilizer when economies are struggling, is all the more appropriate for an Arab world that has been plagued by extremely high joblessness and a general lack of infrastructure and development. He says the Arab spring creates an opportunity for a drastic shift in the region’s approach to social and economic policy.

The retention of resources and their redeployment within the national economy are indispensable conditions for development and job creation. Employment policies are best set subject to social efficiency criteria distinct from the salient neoclassical productivity ones. It is highly unlikely, in view of the sheer smallness to which industry and the productive economy have shrunk under neoliberalism, that it would be possible to reemploy the massive redundant labour force on the basis of expanding private sector expansion and productivity gains. A criterion valuing and remunerating social work may be costly in the short term, but the social returns will reimburse initial expenses over the long term.