MacroScope

Fed on guard over low U.S. savings rate

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered what may have been his last testimony on monetary policy before Congress, most of the world’s attention was focused on what hints he might give about the timing of an eventual reduction in the pace of asset purchases.

Tucked in the actual semi-annual monetary policy report Bernanke delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was a little-noticed reference to growing worries about the potential for an extended period of low savings, associated in part with long-stagnant wages, to thwart long-run economic progress.

Total U.S. net national saving – that is, the saving of U.S. households, businesses, and governments, net of depreciation charges – remains extremely low by historical standards.

In the third quarter of last year, net national saving as a percent of nominal GDP was close to zero. The relative flatness of the national saving rate over the past few years reflects the offsetting effects of a narrowing in the federal budget deficit as a share of nominal GDP and a downward movement in the private saving rate.

National saving will likely remain low this year, in light of the still-large federal budget deficit. A portion of the decline in federal savings relative to pre-recession levels is cyclical and would be expected to reverse as the economy recovers. If low levels of national saving persist over the longer run, they will likely be associated with both low rates of capital formation and heavy borrowing from abroad, limiting the rise in the standard of living for U.S. residents over time.

U.S. housing outlook still promising despite rise in rates: Citigroup economist

U.S. housing sector fundamentals remain favorable despite the recent rise in interest rates and the sharp drop in housing starts in June, says Citigroup economist Peter D’Antonio.

Housing starts fell 9.9 percent to a ten-month low of 836,000 units in June.

But the decline was almost all in the volatile multi-family sector, D’Antonio notes. Single-family starts remained in a range just below 600,000, while multi-family fell 26 percent to 245,000.

Multi-family starts have been an important growth sector in housing in the past year, but month-to-month changes in multi-family starts – noted for their volatility – are meaningless. Multi-family housing starts rose 21 percent in March, fell 32 percent in April, rose 28 percent in May, then fell 26 percent in June.

Morgan Stanley cuts second quarter U.S. GDP forecast to 0.3 percent

The surprising weakness in June housing starts is probably only temporary, according to Morgan Stanley economist Ted Wieseman, but the softness in June nonetheless prompted him to cut Morgan Stanley’s Q2 GDP estimate to 0.3 percent from 0.4 percent.

After a 9.4 percent pullback from the February cycle high, single-family starts are now running far below the pace of new home sales. Unless sales roll over — which was certainly not the message from the surging homebuilders’ survey — supply of unsold new homes will fall to record lows in coming months, likely spurring a sharp renewed pickup in new home construction.

Incorporating the June softness, however, Morgan Stanley cuts its forecast for Q2 residential investment to +18.9 percent from +20.3 percent, which shaved 0.1 percentage point off the firm’s second quarter growth estimate. U.S. GDP growth averaged just 1.1 percent in the fourth and first quarters. Benchmark revisions will make the upcoming batch of growth figures harder to read than usual.

Regarding second quarter GDP, beware the benchmark revisions!

If there ever was a time to discount estimates of an advance GDP report, now is the time, says Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities. That’s because the first snapshot of U.S. Q2 GDP growth, due out on July 31, will occur alongside the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) comprehensive benchmark revisions.

These revisions occur about once every five years and go back to the beginning of GDP reporting in 1929. The BEA will also incorporate research and development and royalties from film, television, literature and music into the GDP accounts. The net effect could be a 3 percent upward revision to the level of output.

However, of greater significance will be the change in growth, rather than the outright level, LaVorgna said.

Fear the Septaper

Credit to Barclays economists for coining the term ‘Septaper’

A solid U.S. employment report for June appears to have cemented market expectations that the Fed will begin to reduce the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September.  Average employment growth for the last six months is now officially above 200,000 per month.

Never mind that, even at this rate, it would take another 11 months for the job market to reach its pre-recession levels – and that’s not counting the population growth since then.

John Brady, managing director at R.J. O’Brian & Associates in Chicago, nails the market’s sentiment:

Portugal crisis to test ECB´s strategy

Portuguese bond yields surged to more than 8 percent as a government crisis prompted investors to shun the bailed-out country, raising concerns about another flare-up in the euro zone debt saga.

The resignation this week of two key ministers, including Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar who was the architect of its austerity drive, tipped Portugal into a turmoil that could derail its plan to exit its bailout next year.

Portuguese bond yields surged to levels near which it was forced to seek international aid two years ago. The sell-off spread to Italian and Spanish debt markets, but was not as pronounced there.

Broken (record) jobless data: Euro zone unemployment stuck at all-time high

Surprise! Euro zone unemployment was stuck at record high of 12.2 percent in May, with the number of jobless quickly climbing towards 20 million. Still, as accustomed to grim job market headlines from Europe as the world has become, it is worth perusing through the Eurostat release for some of the nuances in the figures.

For one thing, as Matthew Phillips notes, Spain’s unemployment crisis is now officially more dire than Greece’s – and that’s saying something.

Also, the figures remind us just how disparate conditions are across different parts of the currency union. While Spanish and Greek unemployment is hovering just below 27 percent, the jobless rate in Austria, the region’s lowest, is 4.7 percent.

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.

In his own words: Fed’s Bullard explains dovish dissent

The following is a statement from the St. Louis Fed following the decision by its president, James Bullard, to dissent from the U.S. central bank’s decision to signal a looming reduction in its bond-buying stimulus program:

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard dissented with the Federal Open Market Committee decision announced on June 19, 2013.  In his view, the Committee should have more strongly signaled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 percent in light of recent low inflation readings.  Inflation in the U.S. has surprised on the downside during 2013.  Measured as the percent change from one year earlier, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) headline inflation rate is running below 1 percent, and the PCE core inflation rate is close to 1 percent.  President Bullard believes that to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

President Bullard also felt that the Committee’s decision to authorize the Chairman to lay out a more elaborate plan for reducing the pace of asset purchases was inappropriately timed.  The Committee was, through the Summary of Economic Projections process, marking down its assessment of both real GDP growth and inflation for 2013, and yet simultaneously announcing that less accommodative policy may be in store.  President Bullard felt that a more prudent approach would be to wait for more tangible signs that the economy was strengthening and that inflation was on a path to return toward target before making such an announcement.

Why low inflation may not prevent the Fed from reducing QE

Everybody knows U.S. unemployment, currently at 7.6%, is still too high – especially the millions of Americans struggling to find work. Less widely acknowledged is a recent dip in inflation that puts it well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. Indeed, at 0.7 percent in April, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure was less than half of the central bank’s explicitly stated goal. So why are Fed officials, gathered in Washington for their latest policy decision today, discussing a pullback in stimulus rather than an increase in it?

According to some economists, it’s because policymakers believe the recent decline in inflation will be transitory and that the rate will gradually move back up toward target as growth picks up during the rest of this year and in 2014. Yesterday’s report on consumer prices corroborated that prospect for some analysts.

Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics, wrote:

The low level of headline inflation largely reflects the drop back in commodity prices over the past 12 months, with even the low core rate partly explained by the indirect impact of those lower commodity prices. Under those circumstances, we wouldn’t expect the Fed to put too much weight on inflation being below its target. Once commodity prices level out, the downward pressure on consumer goods prices will begin to ease. In other words, this won’t prevent the Fed from beginning to reduce its monthly asset purchases, probably beginning in September.