Conflicting signals for U.S. economy

As 2011 draws to an unspectacular close, U.S. economic data are sending thoroughly mixed messages about the near-term path of the recovery. That’s not particularly reassuring given the still enormous risks emanating from Europe – but it’s better than the unequivocal weakness that prevailed during the first half of the year.

Consumer confidence offered some reassurance, jumping to an eight-month high in December and showing other encouraging signs as well as Eric Green of TD Securities explains:

The better than expected consumer confidence numbers (64.5) put confidence, like most measures of economic activity, back to the levels of early spring. Views on the labor market, however, look to be rising at a much better clip. The labor differential (between jobs plentiful and hard to get) continued to improve. That measure tracks the unemployment rate very well. It rose in December from -37.4  to -35.1. That remains exceptionally weak, but it is the trend that matters. That trend has improved decisively over the past several months and is now well above the spring levels that averaged closer to -39, and is the highest since the end of 2008.

Still, a much sharper-than-expected fall in U.S. home prices for October, while relatively stale as a data point, was enough to remind the Wall Street crowd that this fundamental source of growth remains in a rut with no end in sight. U.S. home prices peaked in mid-2006 and have since dropped by about a third nationwide, with much steeper plunges in the hardest hit parts of the country.

Nomura’s Aichi Amemiya reminds clients of the foreclosure glut still to hit housing:

Making sense of bounce in U.S. housing starts

Surprise! There’s some life in housing after all. U.S. construction starts and building permits jumped to a 1-1/2 year high in November as demand for rental apartments rose, suggesting a downtrodden housing market may be entering a tentative recovery. But will this be another in a long string of bottom-bounces? Or is it the start of a trend

Starts surged 9.3 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 685,000 units last month, the highest level since April last year and well above the Reuters consensus forecast of 635,000. Stephen Stanley at Pierpoint Securities was reticently enthusiastic:

Could it be? Is the housing sector finally beginning to stir? It is a little premature to declare victory, but the data are starting to point to some stirrings in residential construction activity. To be sure, we should not be entirely surprised. New home inventories are far and away lower than they have been in decades.

Falling home values adding to local budget woes: Cleveland Fed

The U.S. home price drop is adding a further drag on local budgets by shrinking the property tax base, according to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

That sets the current episode apart from other recessions, where rapid housing rebounds alleviated some of the budget pressures naturally associated with periods of contraction. The report’s authors, economists Thomas Fitzpatrick and Mary Zenker, explain:

During and after earlier recessions, home prices remained flat or increased. Stable home prices provide stable tax revenue, which is used to fund many critical city services, such as the local police force, fire department, public education, and infrastructure projects. The fall in property values that began in the recent recession — and that continues in many markets today — may be amplifying the budget crises across the country because of the decline in property taxes it is causing.

America’s jobs jam

Graph of Civilian Unemployment Rate

The St. Louis Fed had a public forum this week to talk about their research into the ailing U.S. jobs market. Not a feel-good scenario.

The bottom line was something the regional Fed bank’s research director Christopher Waller told Reuters in a recent interview: the last three recessions have brought jobless recoveries and this one is no exception. No one can clearly explain why, except that employers are less likely to hire back workers they’ve fired than in the past, and that with so much of the recent downturn due to the collapse of housing, it’s evident that unemployed construction workers can’t easily find new work in, say, nursing or IT.

At this week’s gathering, Waller and his staff fleshed out their research with a number of interesting take-aways. In no particular order:

In good company: Bernanke backs Tarullo on housing-targeted QE3

The Federal Reserve, which on Wednesday sharply downgraded its outlook for U.S. economic growth and employment, appears to be seriously considering another round of monetary easing. In what would represent a policy U-turn, any third round of quantitative easing or QE3 appears increasingly likely to be heavily tilted toward purchases of mortgage-backed securities.

The idea was recently floated rather surprisingly by Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo, who normally focuses on regulatory issues. Some analysts had speculated Tarullo might not have broad support, but Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s comments on the matter during his post-meeting press conference on Wednesday suggested otherwise:

The housing sector is a very important sector. Problems in that sector are a big reason why our economy’s not recovering more quickly. I do think that purchases of mortgage-backed securities is a viable option. Certainly, something we would consider if the condition were appropriate. So the answer is yes, we will certainly look into that.

When speculation squashes innovation

Paul Volcker famously joked in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis that the most important financial innovation of the last few decades had come not from Wall Street’s fancy footwork but rather the engineering acumen that created the ATM. A paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research lends some academic credence to Volcker’s view. In particular, the research of Alp Simsek, a Harvard economist, finds the very uncertainty that esoteric new securities introduce into financial markets eats away at benefits arising from greater credit availability:

Financial innovation always decreases the uninsurable variance because new assets increase the possibilities for risk sharing. My main result shows that financial innovation also always increases the speculative variance. This is true even if traders completely agree about the payoffs of new assets. The intuition behind this result is the hedge-more/bet-more effect: Traders use new assets to hedge their bets on existing assets, which in turn enables them to place larger bets and take on greater risks. This effect suggests that financial innovation is more likely to be destabilizing in more complete financial markets and when it concerns derivative assets.

The author argues that rules prohibiting too many new types of securities from being introduced at once – so that traders don’t go too crazy too quickly – isn’t enough. As the crisis showed, when push comes to shove, hard-and-fast rules deliver better results than efforts at industry self-discipline.

Daniel Tarullo’s dovish war cry

It was his first speech on the economy in almost three years in office, but Daniel Tarullo did not pull any punches. The Federal Reserve Board governor, who tends to focus primarily on regulation, on Thursday called for the central bank to step up its purchases of mortgage bonds:

I believe we should move back up toward the top of the list of options the large-scale purchase of additional mortgage-backed securities (MBS), something the FOMC first did in November 2008 and then in greater amounts beginning in March 2009 in order to provide more support to mortgage lending and housing markets.

More broadly, Tarullo made a strong call for further monetary easing, arguing quite dovishly that the recovery is still too weak for the central bank not to take further action.

Fed dips back into housing finance

While financial markets are primarily focused on “Operation Twist,” the Fed’s return to buying mortgage-backed securities has helped that market. MBS have outperformed Treasuries and interest rate swaps since the FOMC announcement.

This has yet to translate into much of a drop in mortgage rates for consumers, however. And even if it does, many economists doubt lower mortgage rates can do much to boost home sales and refinancing, helping to put more cash in consumers’ pockets. Banks are reluctant to lend for a variety of reasons, while consumers are reluctant to borrow due to worries about their jobs and the poor outlook for the economy. Homeowners with underwater mortgages remain unable to refinance their loans — barring a sudden improvement in the market or some type of relief from Washington.

As of early Thursday, the current coupon 30-year MBS were 10 basis points tighter in spread versus Treasuries after a 15 basis points tightening on Wednesday, but the average 30-year mortgage rate is down only 3 basis points overnight to 4.10 percent (albeit a record low) according to

The Fed goes long

As the U.S. economic recovery stumbles, most observers Federal Reserve policy expect the central bank next week to announce an initiative to replace shorter-term securities on its balance sheet with longer-term ones in a bid to drive longer-term interest rates lower.

Fed watchers call the maneuver Operation Twist after a like-named Cold War-era initiative in which the Fed bought longer term securities with a similar objective.

A twist action could stimulate mortgage refinancing and push investors to invest in corporate bonds, which could spur business borrowing, or in equities, which might help stocks recover, the Fed believes. By adjusting the composition of its portfolio rather than launching an aggressive new round of bond buying, also known as quantitative easing, the Fed would be taking a relatively modest easing step, but be acting all the same.

from Reuters Investigates:

China’s rebalancing act puts consumer to the fore

consumerWal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, now has 189 stories in China, according to its website. Soon it will have many more.  The U.S. chain has announced plans to open a series of "compact hypermarkets", using a bare-bones model developed in Latin America, the Financial Times said.

Wal-Mart stores are a bit different than the one's you might find in, say, Little Rock Arkansas. They sell live toads and turtles for one thing, The Economist reported. But they also sell the appliances, gadgets, and housewares that Wal-Mart stores merchandise everywhere.

And business is booming. Third-quarters sales in China soared 15.2 percent from a year earlier, according to the Financial Times story, compared with a paltry 1.4 percent inthe United States.