MacroScope

Why the Fed shouldn’t raise rates to discipline Congress

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been trying for some time to fend off critics of his bond-buying policies who argue the central bank is making it easier for the federal government to run deficits. In remarks to the Economic Club of Indiana on Monday, he seems to have found a useful way to help illustrate his point.

It follows logically that those who say the Fed is abetting profligate governments might want to see higher interest rates that would discourage excess federal borrowing. Bernanke pursues this line of thinking to its natural conclusions – and is very uncomfortable with the results:

I sometimes hear the complaint that the Federal Reserve is enabling bad fiscal policy by keeping interest rates very low and thereby making it cheaper for the federal government to borrow. I find this argument unpersuasive. The responsibility for fiscal policy lies squarely with the Administration and the Congress. At the Federal Reserve, we implement policy to promote maximum employment and price stability, as the law under which we operate requires. Using monetary policy to try to influence the political debate on the budget would be highly inappropriate.

For what it’s worth, I think the strategy would also likely be ineffective: Suppose, notwithstanding our legal mandate, the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates for the purpose of making it more expensive for the government to borrow. Such an action would substantially increase the deficit, not only because of higher interest rates, but also because the weaker recovery that would result from premature monetary tightening would further widen the gap between spending and revenues. Would such a step lead to better fiscal outcomes? It seems likely that a significant widening of the deficit – which would make the needed fiscal actions even more difficult and painful – would worsen rather than improve the prospects for a comprehensive fiscal solution.

U.S. recession signal from the Philly Fed

Will the U.S. economy continue coasting along at a slow but steady clip or does it actually risk tipping into a new recession? Tom Porcelli, economist at RBC Capital, says he’s concerned about a new trough from a little-watched Philadelphia Fed survey of coincident indicators.

Here’s another indicator flashing red. The three-month trend for the Philly coincident index (which captures state employment and wage metrics) fell to a fresh cycle low of +24 in August – it was +80 just three months ago.

A reading this low historically bodes ill for future economic activity. Looking back at the last five downturns, this index averaged +41 three months prior to the official start of the recession. We have decidedly crossed that threshold.

Lucky enough to pay taxes

“People. People who pay taxes, Are the luckiest people in the world …” That may not be exactly how the lyrics, most memorably sung by Barbra Streisand in the musical “Funny Girl” actually go, but one could argue that one is lucky to be well off enough to pay federal income taxes.

A research note from Stone & McCarthy Research Associates economist Nancy Vanden Houten wonders why “obsessing about taxpayers with no federal income tax liability” has become a focus of the U.S. presidential campaign.

We think the emphasis is misplaced. A more appropriate question to ask is how much all taxpayers benefit from provisions of the tax code.

Not enough jobs? Blame the government

The U.S. labor market has been adding jobs for two-and-a-half years, helping bring down the jobless rate from a peak of 10 percent in late 2009 to the current 8.1 percent rate. But recently, job growth has slowed to under 100,000 per month – not enough to keep the jobless rate on a downward path. Heidi Shierholz at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington says this leaves the U.S. economy well short of achieving its full capacity:

We’d need to add around 350,000 jobs a month to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate in three years.

With just 96,000 jobs created in August, we’re still a long way off from that kind of strength – and a steady flow of job losses from the public sector isn’t helping. State and local governments have been slashing public payrolls to balance their budgets. In August, the public sector lost 7,000 jobs, but that was mere drop in the bucket of public sector job losses that now total 680,000 lost jobs since August 2008. The total impact is even larger, says Shierholz.

Help not wanted: U.S. online job ads see biggest two-month decline since recession

U.S.job seekers saw online job ads dwindle this summer, according to a survey from The Conference Board. Advertised vacancies fell 108,700 in August to 4,684,800, the industry group said.

Jonathan Basile at Credit Suisse noted that the combined drop of 262,000 jobs for July and August was the biggest two-month decline since the last recession.

This measure of labor demand suggests businesses have become a lot less willing to hire in the last two months. Jobless claims in recent months are not showing a deteriorating picture for the layoff side of payrolls, but help wanted online ads are showing weakness on the hiring side.

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.

Fewer firings do not mean more hirings

Jobless claims fell unexpectedly last week to 361,000. Analysts were particularly heartened by the improvement because the latest figures were finally “clean” of recent seasonal adjustment quirks related to auto factory shutdowns. That’s the good news.

Some lingering cause for hesitation: Eric Green at TD Securities reminds us that recent dips in claims have not necessarily translated into great bursts of new job creation.

Over past periods of this recovery claims at this level have been consistent with (monthly) job growth closer to 200,000. With claims back at these levels, one cannot presume that this will continue to hold given the level of uncertainty and slower growth momentum from which labor demand will lag.

The productively disinflationary American worker

Strong productivity may be good for an economy’s long-term growth prospects. But it’s not always great for workers in the near-run, since it literally means firms are squeezing more out of each employee. In reality, rapid productivity growth can make it harder for workers to get new jobs or bargain for raises.

The benefits of operating efficiently are obvious enough: Productive firms will have more money left over to invest, which should lead to more job creation in the future. Except lately, that future seems never to come, giving rise to the somewhat oxymoronic notion of a jobless recovery.

Millan Mulraine at TD Securities explains:

In many ways, the 2009 and 2002 economic rebounds are very similar in that both can be characterized as largely ‘jobless recoveries’. However, the compensating boost from capital investment – which was a defining feature of the 2003 economic recovery and a key underpinning for economic and productivity growth during the 2003-2007 period – has been largely missing during this cycle. The missing boost from capital investment activity has reinforced the subpar economic performance over the past two years, and will portend poorly for longer-term economic growth potential if the trend continues.

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.