MacroScope

Don’t fear inflation boogeyman: BofA’s Harris

Worries about potential side-effects of unconventional monetary policy on financial markets are at least exaggerated, if not a near figment of the imagination.

This appears to be the conclusion of a comprehensively-argued research note by Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economist Ethan Harris.

The risk investors need to focus on is disinflation, not inflation; yet, remarkably, over the last several years critics of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing have “hijacked” the inflation debate, Harris says.

Every time the Fed announces a new QE program or inflation ticks up a bit, critics warn of a potential surge of inflation. Sure enough, the QE3 announcement in September caused a knee-jerk jump in inflation breakevens, warnings of surging commodity prices and eventual broad-based inflation. All of this has the Fed on the defensive: their directive talks about what they will do if inflation is too high, but is mute on what they will do if inflation is too low.

Despite dire inflation warnings, Harris says the risk of unwanted disinflation is greater than that of unwanted inflation, reason enough “to fade the bond market sell-off.” Treasury yields surged in January after a last-minute agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff” encouraged risk taking and reduced demand for safe-haven U.S. bonds, pushing yields higher.

Revenge of the Fed hawks – sort of

Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this post

Federal Reserve officials appear to be getting cold feet. Having just announced an open-ended bond buying program in September and then broadening it in December, minutes from last month’s policy meeting suggested an increasing caution about additional monetary stimulus among the Federal Open Market Committee’s core of voting members.

Several (members) thought that it would probably be appropriate to slow or to stop purchases well before the end of 2013, citing concerns about financial stability or the size of the balance sheet.

That’s considerably quicker than investors had in mind. Stock and bond markets recoiled at the prospect.

Does the Fed need a new mandate?

Are the world’s top central bankers too paranoid about inflation? As the United States struggles to sustain a weak recovery while the euro zone and Japan face outright contractions in output, a number of economists have called for the monetary authorities to be less dogmatic about adhering tightly to low inflation targets.

Most prominently, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard has argued the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation target is too low given the severity of the loss of employment and growth that followed the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Kenneth Rogoff, co-author of an oft-cited study of economic downturns following financial crises called “This Time is Different,” has also championed greater inflation tolerance.

Fed officials, including Chairman Ben Bernanke, have flatly declined to entertain the notion, arguing that the potential cost – a loss of hard-won inflation-fighting credentials – is too high. “We are not seeking higher inflation, we do not want higher inflation and we’re not tolerating higher inflation,” he told a February hearing in Congress.

Economists boosts U.S. December jobs forecasts after strong ADP data

After a “significantly better than expected” ADP employment report, Goldman Sachs has raised its estimate to 200,000 for the U.S. Labor Department’s December nonfarm payroll report due Friday, the firm’s team of economists said. Separately, initial jobless claims were higher than expected for the most recent week, but the Labor Department reported some holiday distortions, the economists noted. “Overall, the data since our preliminary estimate last Friday have been strong enough to prompt us to revise up our forecast for nonfarm payrolls to 200,000,” the economists concluded.

Goldman wasn’t the only firm to revise its estimates. Jeoff Hall, Thomson Reuters’ resident economist, counted as many as five, though not all of the forecast changes hinged solely on ADP.

The ADP report showed private payrolls expanded by 215,000 jobs in December, easily topping a median forecast of 140,000. Initial jobless claims totaled 372,000 in the week ended December 29, slightly more than expected.

Subconscience of a liberal: Krugman’s curious support of sweatshops

Who hasn’t heard of Paul Krugman these days? The Nobel-winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist has emerged as a key voice in American liberalism, and is berated by the right for his support of heavy fiscal stimulus, higher inflation and a strong social safety net.

Which makes the views espoused in a 1997 missive entitled “In Praise of Cheap Labor” rather surprising. In the article, the economist attacks opponents of globalization for their soft-hearted distaste for inhumane labor conditions in developing countries.

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization – of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

Bernanke’s structuralist concession: Fed chief quietly downgrades U.S. economic potential

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For the first time, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has given credence to the idea that America’s long-term economic potential may have been permanently scarred by the turmoil of recent years. In a speech to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke said:

 The accumulating evidence does appear consistent with the financial crisis and the associated recession having reduced the potential growth rate of our economy somewhat during the past few years. In particular, slower growth of potential output would help explain why the unemployment rate has declined in the face of the relatively modest output gains we have seen during the recovery.

True, Bernanke came nowhere near saying monetary policy was impotent to improve the situation. Indeed, he argued that the weaker potential growth “seems at best a partial explanation of the disappointing pace of the economic recovery.”

Deciphering the Fed: Guideposts for progress on jobs

The Federal Reserve’s open-ended bond-buying stimulus announced last month was coupled with a promise to continue purchasing assets “if the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Central bank officials are expected to continue discussing what parameters they will take into account to define such progress, but are not expected to come to any hard and fast decisions just yet.

In a research note entitled “What the Fed didn’t say: Payrolls at 160K,” Torsten Slok, economist at Deutsche Bank, offers a few guideposts:

In terms of what the Fed will be looking at, we reckon that employment growth will be first among equals – in particular nonfarm payrolls. We estimate that the FOMC’s economic and policy projections are consistent with payrolls averaging gains of around 160,000 per month through mid-2015, when they have told us they expect the exit process to begin to get under way. There is a range of uncertainty around this estimate. But if the numbers are coming in well below that rate for a number of months (100k or less), look for the Committee to extend the mid-2015 date and possibly step up its QE purchases, and expect just the opposite if they are coming in well above that rate (200k or more).

Why rise in part-time employment does not explain U.S. jobless rate decline

The September unemployment rate was the lowest since December 2008 after surprisingly large back-to-back declines, sending economists back to the drawing board after big forecast misses. Some pointed to the large increase in involuntary part-time employment – erroneously so, according to an analysis from Ray Stone, economist and managing director at Stone & McCarthy.

The jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent last month from 8.1 percent in August.

After a quick, superficial look at the September household data, several commentators embraced the thesis that it was due to a 582,000 increase in Part-Time Employment for Economic Reasons. These are people who prefer full-time employment, but sadly had to settle for a part-time job. These 582,000 part-timers accounted for much of the overall 873,000 increase in September civilian employment.

This Part-Time for Economic Reasons statistic “was a Greenspan favorite, and certainly over longer periods of time such is a measure of labor distress,” Stone said. “But, the month-to-month wiggles in this series usually turn out to be noise. In September this metric rose to 8.613 million.”

Early hints of stronger unemployment numbers – that Wall Street economists missed

As traders and economists hash over the sharp and unexpected drop in the U.S.jobless rate to 7.8 percent, they might do well to review some key data points that offered early hints that at least some households were seeing improvement in the labor market. Wall Street analysts in a Reuters poll had forecast a rise in the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent.

Even as big companies were laying off more workers or at least holding back on hiring, The Conference Board’s consumer confidence data showed workers felt more encouraged about finding jobs. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey depicted a late summer upturn in consumer mood even as gasoline prices remained high. The latest ADP report, with all its perceived flaws, indicated a consistent, moderate acceleration in hiring among small- and mid-sized companies since late spring even though big firms seemed reluctant to expand their payrolls.

The graph below shows confidence improving as job prospects brighten.



 

 

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.