MacroScope

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.

While both stories have profound political implications, in economic terms they are really aspects of the same thing: Britain’s economy has been drifting around the margins of mediocrity for the last few years, and will probably do so for years to come.

Stephen Lewis, chief economist at Monument Securities, offered this wider view of Britain’s economy in Wednesday’s Reuters poll:

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.

Draghi engineers August lull, but wait for September

Having not enjoyed a summer lull for a good few years, we might as well take advantage of this one which appears set to last for another couple of weeks yet (famous last words).

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro zone continues to underpin markets who view a litany of grim economic evidence as increasing the likelihood of further central bank action, not just from Europe but China and the United States too, thereby leaving them somewhat becalmed. (Remember the Greenspan put?)

The ECB chief’s intervention remains strictly in the realms of the rhetorical for now. The proof will come in September at the earliest – an ECB policy meeting in the first week is likely to set out the parameters as to how it might act to lower Spanish and Italian borrowing costs, a week later the German constitutional court rules on the viability of the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, then euro zone finance ministers gather in Cyprus for a key meeting. Also in September, the troika of Greek lenders will return to decide whether Athens has done enough to secure its next bailout tranche.

A summer lull?

It seems foolish to hope for a summer lull given recent history but in euro zone debt crisis terms at least, the next week looks quieter unless the markets turn savage again.

That’s not to say things are getting better – Spain’s 10-year borrowing costs are still above the seven percent level which it cannot survive indefinitely — it’s just that things aren’t getting much worse at the moment. Certainly with the Spanish bank bailout signed off as far as it can be, there’s nothing on the policy front to shake things up for a while although the debt-laden region of Valencia’s call for help with its debt hardly inspires confidence that Madrid can get things back on track.

What there is next week is a welter of evidence coming up on the health, or lack of it, of the world economy.
Flash PMIs for the euro zone, France and Germany are swiftly followed by Germany’s Ifo sentiment survey and second quarter GDP figures from Britain. The Q2 U.S. growth figure also comes out on Wednesday as well as the Chinese PMI on Tuesday. The euro zone’s slide into recession is likely to be confirmed and of course Britain is already there and unlikely to clamber out despite government and central bank protestations that the country’s travails are all to do with the euro area.

Off the rails? Goldman lowers Q2 GDP ‘tracking’ estimate to 1.1 pct

Another round of bad news on the economy has prompted Goldman Sachs to shave another tenth of a percentage point off their already bleak second quarter U.S. GDP forecast.

The July Philadelphia Fed business activity index improved less than expected and remained “significantly negative,” pointing to a third month of contraction. Following news that June existing home sales were much weaker than forecast, Goldman Sachs economists lowered their Q2 GDP tracking estimate to 1.1 percent from 1.2 percent.

The 5.4 percent month-on-month decline in existing home sales in June, reported by the National Association of Realtors, was much weaker than the consensus expectation, the economists noted. The 4.37 million annualized rate of sales was also lower than expected despite upward revisions to the May sales figures.