MacroScope

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.

For Porcelli, this could spell trouble for the U.S. labor market:

Declining productivity tends to portend softening employment gains at the margin – with firms subsequently aiming to regain productivity and protect the bottom line. Recall that the decline in Q1 2012 led to a discernible slowing in NFP growth – from an average of 262K in Q1 to 108K the following quarter. Bottom line is that a sharp contraction in productivity should be viewed as a cautionary tale for the jobs backdrop. Something that could be exacerbated if the consumer pulls back enough in Q1 that it has real negative reverberations to Q1 corporate earnings.

Not to mention the prospect of sharp spending cuts set to kick in next month that could deal a heavy blow to the economy.

Surge in foreclosures strains social services in Philadelphia: Philly Fed report

In the wake of a historic housing crisis that has just recently begun showing signs of a turnaround, foreclosure counseling services are coming under strain. The foreclosure mess may be over for big banks, which recently settled with regulators for $8.5 billion.

Not so for homeowners, who continue to face a bureaucratic morass in dealing with lenders and servicers. According to a new report from the Philadelphia Fed, the city of Philadelphia’s already weak infrastructure for dealing with the fallout from the foreclosure crisis is fraying at the edges.

The report’s conclusion:

Foreclosure counseling in Philadelphia is in high demand, but the city’s housing counseling agencies have limited resources with which to meet that need. There is a high degree of reliance on public funding for operations, which is particularly problematic in the current environment of increased concern over budget deficits and public debt. Counselors are being asked to provide services to numerous clients, and agencies have to meet multiple sets of requirements to access and to maintain funding from the primary funding sources. In recent years, these pressures have led to a reduction in the number of agencies offering such counseling in Philadelphia and may continue that trend without new sources of funding to bolster service provision.

New drama casts American Dream in a cold light

The American Dream distorted almost beyond recognition by mass foreclosures, women working on straight commission, men not working at all, and an alleged “higher power” who wants you to be rich beyond your wildest dreams, is the subject of the Women’s Project Theater’s production of “Bethany,” a new play by the young playwright Laura Marks.

The central character, Crystal, (played by America Ferrera, star of the “Ugly Betty” television series) is trying to regain custody of her daughter, Bethany, who has been placed in foster care because foreclosure has left her mother homeless.

Crystal is a victim of the American Dream, portrayed in this work as little more than an elaborate con game where honest, frantic people run like rats on a wheel – with firmer, secure ground hopelessly out of reach.

Will the Fed adopt thresholds for bond buys?

Tim Ahmann contributed to this post

Suddenly top Wall Street firms are talking about the possibility that the Fed might adopt numerical thresholds for asset purchases, in the same way it has done with interest rates more broadly.

Writes Mike Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan and a former NY Fed staffer:

Perhaps the most interesting element of Fed policy at the current juncture is how they communicate the conditions that will lead to a slowing or a halt in asset purchases. The speed with which the Committee produced the numerical threshold rate guidance is a reminder that the Bernanke Fed can get their homework done early, but even so we do not look for any news on this front next week.

First, the discussion of this topic is still in its infancy; even the numerical threshold guidance took a few months of debate to finalize. Second, since the introduction of the Chairman’s press conference the FOMC has shown a strong preference to make big decisions – and ones potentially subject to public misunderstanding – at meetings associated with a press conference. There is no press conference scheduled for next week’s meeting. Third, given the complicated task of quantifying the costs of balance sheet expansion, it’s not even certain the Fed will ever communicate the economic conditions that would slow or stop their asset purchases.

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.

From one Fed dove to another: I see your logic

Narayana Kocherlakota, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has made a habit of turning economists’ heads. In September, the policymaker formerly known as a “hawk” surprised people the world over when he suddenly called on the U.S. central bank to keep interest rates ultra low for years to come. This week, Kocherlakota arguably went a step further into “dovish” territory, saying the Fed needs to ease policy even more. He wants the Fed to pledge to keep rates at rock bottom until the U.S. unemployment rate falls to at least 5.5 percent, from 7.8 percent currently – despite the fact that, just last month, the central bank decided to target 6.5 percent unemployment as its new rates threshold.

Kocherlakota’s bold policy stance is probably even more dovish – ie.  more willing to unleash whatever policies are needed to get Americans back to work – than even those of Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, until now considered the stanchest doves of the central bank”s 19 policymakers.

So in an interview on Tuesday, Reuters asked Rosengren what he thought of Kocherlakota’s plan. Here’s what he had to say:

Who said what, when? An unofficial guide to Fed speak on QE3

U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers, fresh from a December decision to ramp up asset purchases to help push down borrowing costs, will this year train a sharp eye on jobs.

A “substantial improvement” in the labor market outlook is a prerequisite for ending the bond-buying program, known as QE3 because it is the Fed’s third quantitative easing program since the Great Recession.

Below is a look at top Fed officials’ views on the asset-purchase program, currently at a monthly $85 billion, as well their take on the Fed’s new vow to keep rates low until unemployment falls to at least 6.5 percent, as long as inflation does not threaten to breach 2.5 percent.

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.

On fiscal ledge, corporate gain may be household’s pain

It doesn’t sound sustainable but, at least in coming months, businesses look set to keep booming even as consumers come under pressure – in line with the recent trend. That’s because the economic hit from the partial deal on the fiscal cliff will hurt salaried workers disproportionately, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho.

He writes:

Although the worst of the fiscal cliff has been avoided, the compromise is not macroeconomic neutral. Our calculations, in fact, suggest that the drag created by the reversal of the payroll tax cut and the various tax hikes on upper income households will cut real GDP by upwards of 0.5% to 1% from our preliminary 1.5% to 2% forecast.

Real GDP in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% this year implies that corporate profit growth will come at the expense of the wage earner. Moreover, the earnings focus assures a larger share of national income will accrue to the corporate sector. This implies another year of limited employment gains.

What to do about Britain and Europe?

After a long, long wait, Britain’s David Cameron is poised to make his big speech on his country’s future ties with Europe.

It was supposed to be delivered in the autumn but has been delayed as the realization has dawned that there is no obviously good outcome for the ruling Conservative party’s leadership which faces implacable eurosceptics within its rank-and-file, many of whom want out of the EU completely. Cameron almost certainly doesn’t want out but may be pushed in that direction if he cannot deliver the repatriated powers from the EU that he has suggested are possible.

It’s hard to see other European leaders playing ball, particularly since Cameron took the unusual step of wielding Britain’s veto at a summit just over a year ago. Whatever he says, a bout of internecine warfare in his party is quite possible on an issue that has ripped it apart before.