MacroScope

Corporate responsibility: it’s time to start investing those record profits and cash piles

Corporate profits and cash piles have never been higher. But it’s not just an economic imperative that firms get spending and investing, it’s their social and moral responsibility to do so.

Three of the four sectors that make up the economy got battered by the global financial crisis and Great Recession:

    - Households: millions of workers lost their jobs, households retrenched their finances and times got extremely tough - Governments: they rescued and guaranteed the global economy and financial system at a cost of trillions - Banks: often vilified for their role in causing the crisis and apparent lack of punishment or contrition, they’re being forced to undergo huge structural change that will cost them billions

The one sector that flourished – even more than banks (and bankers) – is the corporate sector. By some measures, it has never had it so good – profits, cash reserves and share prices have rarely been higher:

The problem is, hardly any of that is being reinvested and relatively few are enjoying the spoils. Management and shareholders are sitting pretty, thanks to dividend payments and share buybacks. According to financial market consultant and author Andrew Smithers, US companies invest barely twice as much as they  pay out to shareholders. In the 1970s that ratio was as high as 15:1.

Smithers argues this is largely down to the distorted and myopic monetary short-termism of management incentives.

Auto-pilot QE and the Federal Reserve’s taper dilemma

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When the U.S. Federal Reserve launched its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, it was hailed as an “open-ended” policy that would last as long as needed. Most important for investors, the pace of the bond buying – which started at a somewhat arbitrary $85 billion per month – would be “data dependent.” Especially throughout the spring, officials stressed they were serious about adjusting the dial on QE3 depending on changes in the labor market and broader economy. But as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month from 8.1 percent when the program was launched in September, 2012, the bond-buying has effectively been on auto-pilot for 14 straight months.

Now, some are wondering whether the decision not to at least tinker with the program has made the first so-called taper a bigger deal than it needed to be. “When you don’t react to small changes in the data with small changes in the policy then the markets tend to read more into it when you do change policy,” St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said last week after a speech in Arkansas. “It makes policy a little more rigid than it maybe should be.”

Bullard, who in June cited falling inflation when he dissented against a Fed policy decision to stand pat, continued:

United on banking union?

Reuters reported over the weekend that Angela Merkel’s Conservatives and the centre-left SPD had agreed that a body attached to European finance ministers, not the European Commission, to decide when to close failing banks.

At the risk of blowing trumpets this will make the euro zone weather in the week to come and could open the way for agreement on long, long-awaited banking union by the year-end.

Up to now, Berlin has chafed against the European Commission’s proposal that it should be in charge of winding up banks and the path to a body to act on a cross-border basis looked strewn with obstacles.

Moments difficiles

Breaking news is S&P’s downgrade of France’s credit rating to AA from AA+ putting it two notches below Germany. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has rushed out to declare French debt is among the safest and most liquid in the euro zone, which is true.

What is also pretty unarguable is S&P’s assessment that France’s economic reform programme is falling short and the high unemployment is weakening support for further measures. There’s also Francois Hollande’s dismal poll ratings to throw into the mix.

As a result, medium-term growth prospects are lacklustre. Euro zone GDP figures for the third quarter are out next week and France is expected to lag with growth of just 0.1 percent.

The limits of Federal Reserve forward guidance on interest rates

The ‘taper tantrum’ of May and June, as the mid-year spike in interest rates became known, appears to have humbled Federal Reserve officials into having a second look at their convictions about the power of forward guidance on interest rate policy.

Take James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed. He acknowledged on Friday that the Fed’s view of the separation between rates guidance and asset purchases had not been fully accepted by financial markets. “This presents challenges for the Committee,” he noted.

A decision to modestly reduce the pace of asset purchases can still leave a very accommodative policy in place to the extent forward guidance remains intact.

Romer, taking aim at Fed, advocates ‘regime change’ and a shift to nominal GDP

By Alister Bull

photo

Christina Romer, former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a strong advocate for Janet Yellen to take over from Ben Bernanke as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, slammed the Fed in a lecture last week that accused the U.S. central bank of being too meek and of fighting the wrong battle by being fixated on asset bubbles.

Romer, sometimes touted as a potential candidate to fill one of the 3 vacancies on the Fed’s Board in Washington, or maybe run a regional branch (Cleveland has an opening), also discussed deliberately aiming for 3 or 4 percent inflation, as well as targeting nominal GDP.

One key observation from her remarks was central banks must tackle financial instability head-on. The Greenspan-era disdain for using monetary policy to burst asset bubbles has become a luxury which the post-crisis world can no longer afford:

Forever blowing bubbles?

UK finance minister George Osborne is speaking at a Reuters event today, Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean addresses a conference and we get September’s public finance figures. For Osborne, there are so many question to ask but Britain’s frothy housing market is certainly near the top of the list.

The government is extending its “help to buy” scheme at a time when house prices, in London at least, seem to be going through the roof (no pun intended). Property website Rightmove said on Monday that asking prices for homes in the capital jumped 10.2 percent in the last month alone.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has suggested the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee should cap house price inflation at 5 percent a year. A Bank of England policymaker retorted that it wasn’t down to his colleagues to regulate prices.

Congress “smashed the instrument panel” of U.S. economic data: Fed’s Fisher

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and one of the U.S. central bank’s arch inflation hawks, took us by surprise this week – he told Reuters that, given all the uncertainty generated by the government shutdown, it would not be prudent for the Fed to reduce its bond-buying stimulus this month.

“It is just too tender a moment,” he said. That was on Tuesday, before a last-minute deal averted a debt default but set up additional uncertainty by pushing the statutory spending cap into February.

Fisher said he wishes the Fed had begun the so-called ‘tapering’ process in September as markets has expected. But while he did not rule out a pullback from the current $85 billion monthly pace of asset purchases in December, he did acknowledge the next couple months of data could be “noisy” as economists try to weed out temporary shutdown effects from the broader trend.

Can they kick it? Yes they can

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During the recent round of financial crises, policymakers have done a whole lot of “kicking the can down the road”.

The latest is taking place in the United States where a fiscal stalemate between Republicans and Democrats has forced the first partial government shutdown in 17 years.  It has also raised concerns about a U.S. debt default, should the government not meet a deadline this week of raising the debt ceiling. That has kept short-term U.S. interest rates and the cost of insuring U.S. debt against default relatively elevated.

While markets remain convinced there will be a last-minute deal – because the consequences are far to dire for there not to be – their performance has ebbed and flowed with the mixed messages from Washington.

Fed doves strike back


Now that Washington’s circus-like government shutdown has put a damper on hopes for stronger U.S. economic growth going into next year, dovish Federal Reserve officials again appear to have the upper hand in the way of policy commentary.

Take Eric Rosengren, the Boston Fed President who had been unusually quiet as the tapering debate gathered steam. In a speech in Vermont on Thursday, he returned to a familiar theme – the central bank still has plenty of firepower and should not be afraid to use it.

Unfortunately, most of the risks to the outlook remain on the downside. Concerns over untimely fiscal austerity here and abroad, and the possibility of problems once again emerging in parts of Europe, could cause the Federal Reserve to miss on both elements of its dual mandate – employment and inflation – through 2016.