MacroScope

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

The United States said Russia was firing artillery across its border to target Ukrainian military positions. It also said there was evidence the Russians intended to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to separatist forces.

Russia’s central bank holds a policy meeting but is unlikely to give the economy much respite on the monetary policy front.
Last month, the central bank cut its growth forecast for the year to 0.4 percent and that was before sanctions were tightened by both the United States and European Union. But with inflation still well above its 5 percent target for 2014, the scope to lower interest rates looks somewhere between slim and none.

Fed taxonomy: Lacker is a hawk, not a bull

Not to mix too many animal metaphors but, generally speaking, monetary policy hawks also tend to bulls on the economy. That is, they are leery of keeping interest rates too low for too long because they believe growth prospects are stronger than economists foresee, and therefore could lead to higher inflation.

That is not the case, however, for Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, a vocal opponent of the central bank’s unconventional bond-buying stimulus program, particular the part of it that focuses on mortgages. He reiterated his concerns last week, saying the Fed should begin tapering in September by cutting out its mortgage bond buying altogether.

But when I asked him whether upward revisions to second quarter gross domestic product reinforced his case, Lacker was surprisingly skeptical of forecasts for a stronger performance in the second half of the year.

U.S. housing outlook still promising despite rise in rates: Citigroup economist

U.S. housing sector fundamentals remain favorable despite the recent rise in interest rates and the sharp drop in housing starts in June, says Citigroup economist Peter D’Antonio.

Housing starts fell 9.9 percent to a ten-month low of 836,000 units in June.

But the decline was almost all in the volatile multi-family sector, D’Antonio notes. Single-family starts remained in a range just below 600,000, while multi-family fell 26 percent to 245,000.

Multi-family starts have been an important growth sector in housing in the past year, but month-to-month changes in multi-family starts – noted for their volatility – are meaningless. Multi-family housing starts rose 21 percent in March, fell 32 percent in April, rose 28 percent in May, then fell 26 percent in June.

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.

U.S. housing recovery running out of steam? Not so fast, says Coldwell Banker CEO Huskey

U.S.home resales unexpectedly fell in December, but the drop was not large enough to suggest the recovery in the housing sector is running out of steam.

The National Association of Realtors said on Tuesday that existing home sales dropped 1.0 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.94 million units.

Reuters television’s Conway Gittens interviews Budge Huskey, CEO of Coldwell Banker.

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.

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.

Housing healing

More than six years after its spectacular collapse, the U.S. housing market – the laggard of the struggling economic recovery – may be poised for pickup, driven in part by an upswing in remodeling, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer thinks.

Gains are likely to be modest at first, and are subject to volatility since overall economic growth may well slow in the second half of this year. Also, given the deep hole housing has fallen into, the market is still far from a robust recovery, Meyer wrote in a note to clients drawn from recent research.

Still, some evidence points to the beginnings of an upswing. For one, data already indicate a rebound in spending on renovations. Remodeling will pick up steam as investors convert foreclosed properties into rentals, and homeowners who have held off doing repairs or additions decide the time is ripe, Meyer said.

from Lawrence Summers:

It’s too soon to return to normal policies

Economic forecasters divide into two groups: those who cannot know the future but think they can, and those who recognize their inability to know the future. Shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognized until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the U.S. economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy's potential now appears as a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when the risks to the consensus modest-growth forecast were to the downside, they are now very much two-sided.

As winter turned to spring in 2010 and 2011, many observers thought they detected evidence that the economy had decisively turned, only to be disappointed a few months later. A variety of considerations suggest that this time may be different. Employment growth has been running well ahead of population growth. The stock market level is higher and its expected volatility lower than at any time since the crisis began in 2007, suggesting that the uncertainty hanging over business has declined. Consumers who have been deferring purchases of cars and other durable goods have created pent-up demand. The housing market seems to be stabilizing. For years now, the rate of family formation has been way below normal as young people moved in with their parents. At some point they will set out on their own, creating a virtuous circle of a stronger housing market, more family formation and demand, and further improvement in housing conditions. Innovation around mobile information technology, social networking and newly discovered oil and natural gas is likely, assuming appropriate regulatory policies, to drive significant investment and job creation.

True, the risks of high oil prices, further problems in Europe, and financial fallout from anxiety about future deficits remain salient. However, unlike in 2010 and 2011, it is probable that these risks are already priced into markets and factored into outlooks for consumer and business spending. There has already been a significant escalation in oil prices. The European situation is hardly resolved but is unlikely to deteriorate as much in the next months as it did last year. And market participants report great alarm about the deficit situation. So it would not take great news in any of these areas for them to actually contribute to upward revisions in current forecasts.

U.S. retail sector perks up

One month’s data may not a trend make. Even so, this morning’s batch was pretty solid. U.S. retail sales rose 1.1 percent in February, the biggest gain in five months, and January’s numbers were revised up. Some of the rise reflected higher gas prices, but much of it appeared to be real.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses’ small business optimism index also rose, for a sixth straight month.

Eric Green at TD Securities says that as far as potential revisions to GDP forecasts, he’s keeping his powder dry for now: