MacroScope

Don’t call it a target: The thing about nominal GDP

Ask top Federal Reserve officials about adopting a target for non-inflation adjusted growth, or nominal GDP, and they will generally wince. Proponents of the awkwardly-named NGDP-targeting approach say it would be a more powerful weapon than the central bank’s current approach in getting the U.S.economy out of a prolonged rut.

This is what Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had to say when asked about it at a press conference in November 2011:

So the Fed’s mandate is, of course, a dual mandate. We have a mandate for both employment and for price stability, and we have a framework in place that allows us to communicate and to think about the two sides of that mandate. We talked today – or yesterday, actually – about nominal GDP as an indicator, as an information variable, as something to add to the list of variables that we think about, and it was a very interesting discussion. However, we think that within the existing framework that we have, which looks at both sides of the mandate, not just some combination of the two, we can communicate whatever we need to communicate about future monetary policy. So we are not contemplating at this date, at this time, any radical change in framework. We are going to stay within the dual mandate approach that we’ve been using until this point.

But Mike Dueker, chief economist at Russell Investments and a former St. Louis Fed staffer, said the Fed already targets nominal GDP, even if it won’t admit to it. The way he sees it, by setting an inflation target of 2 percent and forecasting long-run growth between 2.3 percent and 2.5 percent, policymakers are effectively aiming for an NGDP target in the vicinity of 4.5 percent.

The basic idea behind aiming for NGDP is to allow for some short-term wiggle room on inflation to help boost economic momentum and induce businesses to invest in new production, and hire more workers. Once momentum gets going, policymakers can dial back stimulus.

Euro zone triptych

Three big events today which will tell us a lot about the euro zone and its struggle to pull out of economic malaise despite the European Central Bank having removed break-up risk from the table.

1. The European Commission will issue fresh economic forecasts which will presumably illuminate the lack of any sign of recovery outside Germany. Just as starkly, they will show how far off-track the likes of Spain, France and Portugal are from meeting their deficit targets this year. All three have, explicitly or implicitly, admitted as much and expect Brussels to give them more leeway. That looks inevitable (though not until April) but it would be interesting to hear the German view. We’ve already had Slovakia, Austria and Finland crying foul about France getting cut some slack. El Pais claims to have seen the Commission figures and says Spain’s deficit will will come in at 6.7 percent of GDP this year, way above a goal of 4.5 percent. The deficit will stay high at 7.2 percent in 2014, the point so far at which Madrid is supposed to reach the EU ceiling of three percent.

2. Banks get their first chance to repay early some of the second chunk of more than a trillion euros of ultra-cheap three-year money the ECB doled out last year. First time around about 140 billion was repaid, more than expected, indicating that at least parts of the euro zone banking system was returning to health. Another hefty 130 billion euros is forecast for Friday. That throws up some interesting implications. First there is a two-tier banking system in the currency bloc again with banks in the periphery still shut out. Secondly, it means the ECB’s balance sheet is tightening while those of the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan continue to balloon thanks to furious money printing. The ECB insists there is plenty of excess liquidity left to stop money market rates rising much and a big rise in corporate euro-denominated bond sales helps too. But all else being equal, that should propel the euro yet higher, the last thing a struggling euro zone economy needs.

Fading productivity could hurt U.S. job growth

RBC economist Tom Porcelli is such a curmudgeon these days. Still, given that he was one of the few economists that accurately predicted the possibility of a negative reading on fourth quarter GDP, maybe it’s not a bad idea to listen to what he has to say.

This week, he expressed concern about a rapid decline in U.S. productivity – and that was before data showing U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the fourth quarter by the most in nearly two years.

Productivity declined at a 2 percent annual rate, the sharpest drop since the first quarter of 2011 and a larger fall than the 1.3 percent forecast in a Reuters poll.

Ignore the noise around Britain’s GDP figures

One of two stories will probably emerge from Friday’s first reading on how the British economy fared at the end of last year.

If it shrank 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter as the consensus of economists polled by Reuters expects, or worse, we will hear it raises the disastrous spectre of a third recession in four years, or a “triple-dip”.

If it defies expectations by growing slightly, that risk is averted and the government will say it shows the economy is getting back on its feet.

Italian elections may yet shake euro zone

Is Italy about to add some bite to its bark as far as the euro zone is concerned? Quite possibly. An opinion poll last night showed Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is charging up along the rails, increasing the chances of a messy election result with the front-running centre-left unable to form a stable government.

Although it retains a strong lead, the way votes are carved up in the Senate could easily rob it of a majority in the upper house. The huge media coverage Berlusconi can command via his empire may be starting to tell. Technocrat premier Mario Monti, who could yet play a key part in a centre-left administration if his centrist grouping is needed in a coalition, responded to the polling evidence by launching a stinging attack on Berlusconi.

Markets have so far been utterly sanguine about the late February election but if Berlusconi’s resurgence continues, that could change abruptly. The favoured outcome would be a PD (centre-left) government supported by Monti who would act as guarantor of economic reforms needed to increase Italian competitiveness and growth. But a chunk of the Democrat Party (PD) want a sharp change of course from Monti’s austerity path, and its main coalition partner on the left, the SEL, are implacably opposed to his policies. So nothing is certain.

Trade entrails

An exercise in divination using the entrails of last week’s U.S. international trade report shows signs of a move with larger implications than just the gaping deficit that caught analysts wrong-footed: the possibility of a persistent burden on the American economy caused by Japanese and German imports, like in the 80s.

The U.S. trade deficit widened 16 percent in November to $48.7 billion, the Commerce Department said on Friday, above the $41.3 billion expected. The negative surprise prompted economists to cut hastily their U.S. gross domestic product estimates for the last quarter to a negligible rate. The stock market took a hit.

The disappointment was limited, however, as analysts attributed the bulky import bill behind the deficit increase to a resumption of merchandise flows into the U.S. after Hurricane Sandy paralyzed port activity in the East Coast the previous month. Some economists still on yuletide mode are, apparently, missing the big picture.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]

Time already to switch off the sterling printing presses?

A clutch of top UK economic forecasters on Thursday swept under the rug predictions for another 50 billion pounds of gilt purchases they thought would take place starting just in a few weeks.

News that the UK economy bolted ahead at a 1.0 percent quarterly pace in the three months to September – nearly double the consensus prediction in the Reuters Poll and easily more than twice the last measured growth rate in the United States – was probably a good enough reason on the surface.

But most agree the main reason was an extra work day compared with the prior quarter – when the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations left vast swathes of the country idle – along with a spending boost from accounting for tickets for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Economists revise down third quarter U.S. GDP forecasts as business investment missing in action

Richard Leong contributed to this post

U.S.durable goods orders rebounded a solid 9.9 percent in September following the prior month’s plunge. However, a proxy for business investment was essentially stuck in neutral. This was sufficiently worrying to JP Morgan economists to force them to revise down their estimates for third quarter U.S. economic growth down to 1.6 percent from 1.8 percent. Barclays economists also marked down their Q3 GDP forecast by 0.2 percentage point, putting it at 1.8 percent. The Reuters consensus forecast for the number, due out on Friday, is 1.9 percent.

JP Morgan economist Mike Feroli:

Don’t let the headline fool you: the September durables report was a big disappointment. In particular, the weakness in the capital goods figures leaves intact our concerns regarding the capex outlook. In light of today’s report we are revising down our expectations for tomorrow’s 3Q GDP report from 1.8% to 1.6%. We continue to look for 2.0% growth in 4Q, though there is now some downside risk to our business investment projection for next quarter. […]

Core capital goods orders were flat last month and core capital goods shipments were down 0.3%. These figures may not look so bad until you consider two factors; first, both numbers had been weak over the prior few months and some rebound was expected, and second, both numbers tend to be strong in the third month of the quarter. Topping it all off, both numbers were revised down a decent amount in August. All of these factors get reflected in the three-month average annualized change, which shows shipments declining at a 4.9% pace and orders sinking at a 23.5% annual rate.

An unpleasant surprise may lurk in euro zone GDP numbers

The euro zone economy may be doing far worse than most economists want to believe. That’s not good news for a central bank trying to rescue the single currency through a hotly-contested bond purchasing programme that has yet to get started.

The latest flash purchasing managers’ indexes, which cover thousands of euro zone companies, suggest the third quarter will mark the euro zone’s worst economic performance since the dark days of early 2009, according to Markit, which compiles them.

They predict the economy likely shrank by 0.6 percent in the quarter that finishes at the end of this month.