MacroScope

Still not thinking the very thinkable on Britain’s future

Mark these words. Not only is Britain going to avoid a triple-dip recession, but the economy won’t shrink again as far as the eye can see.

If that sounds ridiculously optimistic, don’t tell the more than 30 economists polled by Reuters last week, none of whom predict even a single quarter of economic decline from here on.

Even the Bank of England, not exactly famous these days for its accuracy in economic forecasting, has said for a long time that a quarter or two of contraction here and there is to be expected. That was underlined by Wednesday’s unexpected news some policymakers voted for more bond purchases this month.

And most Britons are now used to an economy that has done little but vacillate between growth and contraction over the last few years.

It seems only the market economists, working mainly for banks and research institutions, are leaning firmly towards growth.

100-years of solitude in the euro zone

The euro zone slipped deeper into recession than economists expected in the fourth quarter of 2012 as Germany and France– the region’s two largest economies – shrank 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent respectively on a quarterly basis.

The data is a reminder of the plight still facing the euro zone as it struggles to shake off a three-year debt crisis, which the region has sought to fight with harsh, growth-crimping austerity.

The European Central Bank’s promise to buy the bonds of struggling sovereigns has spurred investors back into those markets and helped reduce borrowing costs. While one trillion euros of cheap funding made available to banks in late 2011 and early 2012 also gave investors greater confidence, the benefits of such policies have yet to translate into improvements in the real economy.

The wider point about Britain’s “triple-dip” recession threat

Britain’s economy shrank an estimated 0.3 percent at the end of 2012 and every major media outlet says it points to a big risk of a triple-dip recession.

And equally predictably, some economists have already pointed out it’s a preliminary report, so maybe the economy isn’t as weak as the stats show. Negative figures have been revised away in the past.

While both points may well be true, they really amount to a squabble over whether your football team is going to go 4-0 down or 5-0 down. As Markit Economics pointed out, Friday’s figures mean that UK GDP remains some 3.2 percent lower than the peak of Q1 2008.

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.

Big government kept a “contained depression” from being a Great one: Levy

David Levy says he is bullish on the U.S. economy long term. But for now, the country is effectively stuck in a “contained depression,” the chairman of the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center told Reuters during a recent visit to our Washington bureau.

Still, things could have been much worse, says the third generation economist. For Levy, the interventions of a large and proactive federal government prevented a repeat of the 1930s.

In this corrective process, the reason we haven’t had a collapse in profits as we had in the Great Depression is we have – what nobody seems to like very much – a big government that’s stabilizing it by just simply running these deficits and being a much more active lender of last resort.

Spain’s house of cards

Looking at some of the recent trends in the euro zone debt market, one could be forgiven for thinking the region is doing alright.

Spanish and Italian funding costs have come down sharply. Data from the European Central Bank on Thursday showed consumers and firms put money back into Spanish and Greek banks in September. And there are budding signs that foreign investors are venturing back to the Spanish sovereign debt market. As one trader this week put it, the market is “healing”:

Liquidity is coming back, liquidity meaning the market can digest larger customer repositioning and flows again.

Guarded Bernanke still manages to toss a bone to Wall Street and Washington

Ben Bernanke has done it again. In his much-anticipated speech Friday, the Federal Reserve chairman managed to tell both investors and politicians what they wanted to hear – that “the stagnation of the labor market in particular is a grave concern” – all while saying next to nothing new about where U.S. monetary policy is actually headed. That the Fed, as Bernanke also noted, stands ready to ease policy more if needed was well known to anyone paying attention the last few months. We also know that the high jobless rate, at 8.3 percent in July, has long been Bernanke’s main headache in this tepid economic recovery.

Still, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday, it was like Bernanke tossed a bone to the hounds on Wall Street and in the Beltway without even getting up off his lawn chair.

For markets, hungry as they are for a third round of quantitative easing (QE3), the “grave concern” comment says the high unemployment rate and mostly disappointing job growth since March gives the Fed little if any choice but to act. U.S. stocks climbed and the dollar dropped after the speech, with traders and analysts citing the remark. “‘Grave’ concern with labor market is striking,” said David Ader, head of government bond strategy at CRT Capital Group.

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.

Soft underbelly to firmer July jobs report

After a string of very weak figures in the second quarter, the July employment figures prompted a collective sigh of relief that the U.S. economy was at least not sinking into recession. That doesn’t mean the news was particularly comforting. U.S. employers created a net 163,000 new jobs last month, far above the Reuters poll consensus of 100,000. Still, the jobless rate rose to 8.3 percent.

Steve Blitz of ITG Investment Research explains why the underlying components of the payrolls survey offered little cause for enthusiasm:

The headline is good but the details do nothing to dissuade the notion that economic activity remains soft. There is, in effect, no sign in the details economic activity has accelerated from June’s pace when a downward revised 73,000 private sector jobs were added. Hours worked remain the same and overtime at manufacturing firms fell. The diffusion index (percentage of firms adding workers plus one-half of the percentage with unchanged payrolls) dropped in July to 56.4 from 56.8 in June, 61.3 in May, and 62.2 in July of last year. The civilian labor force dropped by 150,000 and the broad U-6 measure of unemployment rose to 15.0% — reversing all the gains made in 2012.

Weak manufacturing orders tend to precede U.S. recessions

U.S. manufacturing activity shrank for a second straight month in July as recent economic weakness spilled into the third quarter, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s closely watched index. But that wasn’t the worst of it: new orders, a gauge of future business activity, also shrank for a second month, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

Tom Porcelli at RBC explains why the status quo may not be good enough to keep the economy expanding:

The historical record back to 1955 suggests a rather ominous outcome when ISM new orders remain at 48 or less for two straight months. In fully 75% of those instances we were hurtling toward recession. The recent headfakes occurred in 1995 during the mid-cycle slowdown and in 2003 shortly after the recession ended and when the housing boom was in its infancy. Our call remains that we’ll (barely) skirt a recession but with evidence mounting that the economic headwinds are placing significant downward pressure on economic output, we find it striking that forecasters – as bearish as we’ve been told they are – still expect growth to average 2.2% in the second half of the year.