MacroScope

Trust me, I’m with Google

Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, is unsurprisingly an advocate of data extraction and analysis on a mass scale – you’d almost have to be, as data-cruncher-in-chief of a company whose search engine was tapped a billion times just since this morning.

At the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics in San Francisco, Varian talked at length about how people can use software to make life better, describing one Google application that he said can retrieve information from your private calendar, check the traffic on the route to your next appointment, and notify you that you’d better leave shortly or risk being late. “I have to say, for some people, this completely freaks them out,” he quipped, but later added that for most kinds of information, the benefits of sharing information with your computer outweigh the costs.

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the extent to which their privacy is at risk in an online world, particularly after new revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s ability to keep electronic tabs on Internet users. Asked about legislative responses to the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Varian had this to say:

The issue is of course there are voices to try to control the use of this data. And the question is how should that be done. Some people say you shouldn’t collect the data in the first place. As a social scientist, this freaks me out.

He went on to say that part of the problem is that people don’t know how the information is collected or how it is used.

If at first you don’t succeed… Fed’s Evans sticks to strong forecast despite misses

It’s nice to know Federal Reserve officials have a sense of humor about their own forecasting errors. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans was certainly humble enough to admit to some recent misses in a speech on Friday .

Still, he’s sticking to his guns, arguing that U.S. economic growth will finally break above 3 percent next year, allowing the Fed to gradually pull back on its bond-buying stimulus.

In 2009, I predicted that growth would pick up. I did the same in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And I was not alone – most FOMC participants and many outside analysts shared this overly optimistic view. Undaunted, I make my intrepid forecast: I anticipate growth to average about 2-1/2 percent in the second half of the year and to be in the neighborhood of 3 percent next year. I expect the unemployment rate to be somewhat below 7 percent by the end of 2014.

Say it with confidence: Consumer surveys as a leading indicator of jobs

It turns out people are better employment forecasters than economists. A report from New York Fed economists finds that confidence measures gleaned from consumer surveys are very tightly correlated with the path of U.S. employment.

The paper offers some illustrative charts that make a rather convincing case.

The chart below plots the Present Situation Index against the unemployment rate, whose scale is inverted so that high levels represent strong labor market conditions (low unemployment) and vice versa. One readily apparent feature is that the two series move together very closely throughout the period and, most notably, during all five of the recessions since 1977. It’s hard to tell from inspecting the chart, but the highest correlation (0.89) occurs at a two-month lead; that is, the Present Situation Index is even more strongly correlated with the unemployment rate two months into the future than it is with the concurrent rate.

The next chart looks at the relationship between changes in this index and payroll job growth – both over twelve-month intervals. This measure of employment is based on a different survey than the survey for the unemployment rate, but payroll employment is typically growing when unemployment is declining and vice versa. Once again, it’s very apparent that the two measures move closely together, and again formal analysis reveals that the Present Situation Index tends to foreshadow movements in employment by a couple of months. In particular, twelve-month changes in the index are most highly correlated with twelve-month job growth four months into the future – the correlation is 0.83.

Fed taxonomy: Lacker is a hawk, not a bull

Not to mix too many animal metaphors but, generally speaking, monetary policy hawks also tend to bulls on the economy. That is, they are leery of keeping interest rates too low for too long because they believe growth prospects are stronger than economists foresee, and therefore could lead to higher inflation.

That is not the case, however, for Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, a vocal opponent of the central bank’s unconventional bond-buying stimulus program, particular the part of it that focuses on mortgages. He reiterated his concerns last week, saying the Fed should begin tapering in September by cutting out its mortgage bond buying altogether.

But when I asked him whether upward revisions to second quarter gross domestic product reinforced his case, Lacker was surprisingly skeptical of forecasts for a stronger performance in the second half of the year.

Curious timing for Fed self-doubt on monetary policy

If there was ever a time to be worried about whether the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying stimulus is having a positive effect on the economy, the last few months were probably not it. Everyone expected government spending cuts and tax increases to push the economic recovery off the proverbial cliff, while the outlook for overseas economies has very quickly gone from rosy to flashing red. But the American expansion has remained the fastest-moving among industrialized laggards, with second quarter gross domestic product revised up sharply to 2.5 percent.

Yet for some reason, at the highest levels of the U.S. central bank and in its most dovish nooks, the notion that asset purchases might not be having as great an impact as previously thought has become pervasive.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s 2012 Jackson Hole speech, made just a month before the Fed launched a third round of monetary easing, made a strong, detailed case for how well the policy was working.

Post-Jackson Hole, Fed Septaper still appears on track

With all the QE-bashing that went on at the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference this year, it was difficult not to get the sense that, barring a major economic disappointment before its September meeting, the central bank is on track to begin reducing the monthly size of its bond purchase program, or quantitative easing.

If anything, the fact that this expectation has become more or less embedded in financial markets means that the Fed might as well go ahead and test the waters with a small downward adjustment of say, $10 billion, from the current $85 billion monthly pace, while waiting to see how employment conditions develop in the remainder of the year.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who is not a voter this year but tends to be a bellwether centrist on the Federal Open Market Committee, told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting that he would be ‘comfortable’ with a September tapering “providing we don’t get any really worrisome signals out of the economy between now and the 18th of September.” (Does this count? Probably not.)

Time to taper the taper talk?

It’s been three months since the Federal Reserve first hinted that it’s going to have to ease off on its extraordinary monetary stimulus, but financial markets are still not settled on the matter.

But while volatility is on the rise – surely partly a result of thinned trading volumes during the peak summer vacation season – the consensus around when the Fed will start cutting back hasn’t budged.

That makes endless daily reports from traders linking that to the latest falls in asset prices, particularly U.S. Treasuries and non-U.S. share prices, not terribly convincing.

Europe may still be ‘on path for a meltdown’: former Obama adviser Goolsbee

Reporting by Chris Kaufmann and Walden Siew

For all the enthusiasm about the euro zone’s exit from recession, many experts believe the currency union’s crisis is more dormant than over. That was certainly the message from Austan Goolsbee, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and professor at the University of Chicago. He spoke to the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.  

Here is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion:

What is your biggest worry about the U.S. economy right now?

A nagging worry is that if we grow 2 percent, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before the unemployment rate comes down to something reasonable. The nightmare worry is that Europe is still basically on path for a meltdown and that it ignites another financial crisis.

In my view the root of the problem is that most of southern Europe is locked in at the wrong exchange rate and will not be able to grow. Normal economics says that with a currency union you can 1) have massive labor mobility, 2) subsidies, 3) differential inflation, 4) grind down wages in the low productivity countries. But those are the only four things.

Why the mediocre U.S. July jobs report was worse than it looked

U.S. economists were generally disappointed with the net gain of 162,000 jobs last month, well below forecasts around 180,000 and market talk of a possible reading above 200,000. The jobless rate did fall to 7.4 percent from 7.6 percent, but labor force participation also resumed its recent descent.

Thomas Lam, chief G3 economist at OSK-DMG/RHB, says the underlying details of the report make employment conditions actually look worse than at first glance. Here’s why:

The most striking aspect of the Jul employment report is that details of the release appear generally weaker than the uninspiring headlines figures.  The nonfarm payrolls print of 162k in Jul, while modestly softer than expectations, was accompanied by narrower gains in private payrolls (the weakest 1-month and 3-month diffusion data since Aug & Sep 2012), and net downward revisions of 26k in prior months (-19k in May and -7k in Jun, confined within private employment).  Moreover, the employment and workweek details from the Jul release imply that real GDP growth in early Q3 2013 might be tracking weaker than the advance Q2 2013 print of 1.7%.

Amnesty for undocumented immigrants would not burden U.S. economy – Levy Economics Institute

The recently passed Senate bill – S. 744, or the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act – that would take significant steps toward comprehensive reform, is being held up in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants the apparent sticking point.

A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated the following:

All told, relative to the committee-approved bill, the Senate-passed legislation would boost direct spending by about $36 billion, reduce revenues by about $3 billion, and increase discretionary costs related to S. 744 by less than $1 billion over the 2014-2023 period.

Nathan Sheets and Robert Sockin at Citigroup are even more sweeping in their endorsement of immigration’s economic upside: