MacroScope

Hey brother, can you spare a coupon?

Remember those green shoots? Ever since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke uttered those words in response to the first signs of recovery from the Great Recession in 2009, many forecasters – including Fed officials – have consistently overestimated the economy’s strength.

Some economists believe 2013 could finally be a break-out year. With the fiscal cliff now in the rear-view mirror and the euro zone crisis apparently stabilized, some see the prospect that growth could actually exceed expectations for the first time in a long while.

Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, said this week he sees a chance the economy might actually surpass his 2013 growth forecast range of 2-2.5 percent.

“If momentum continues and some of the potholes out there are avoided (particularly a political crisis around fiscal decisions), growth could accelerate,” he said.

If he were watching trends in Internet coupons, might he see a different story? Coupons.com CEO Steven Boal does.

Bernanke’s Senate tone not that of Fed Chairman seeking third term

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may be keeping quiet about his future plans, but he sure doesn’t sound like someone planning to seek Senate support for a third term at the helm of the U.S. central bank.

In unapologetic and sometimes testy exchanges before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, the Fed chief defended his record and dismissed one Senate critic in unusually blunt terms.

“None of the things you said are accurate,” Bernanke told Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, who accused the Fed of deliberately starting a global currency war and of printing money to bail out big Wall Street banks.

As U.S. debates immigration, Fed’s Fisher tells his dad’s story

When Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher and inveterate QE3 critic spoke Thursday evening at a black tie insurance industry event in booming Dallas, he left monetary policy out completely. As he often does with a speech directed at fellow Texans, he bragged on the Lone Star State, its job-generating prowess and its resilience since the Great Recession.

And then, in a tale he rarely tells publicly but that has particular resonance amid the rancorous national debate on immigration, he talked of another spectacular success: his dad. “This man is why, despite the current slow economic recovery we are experiencing outside of Texas, despite the fiscal tomfoolery of our national politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, despite the negativism and bad news that pervades the headlines, I have great faith in this country,” he said.

At age five, Fisher’s father was convicted of being a “neglected child” in Queensland, Australia, having been found sleeping under bridges and in doorways with his drunken father. He was sent to a reformatory, then to an orphanage, then to a series of foster families, one of which tied him up in the yard at night by the ankle and woke him “ in the predawn hours to deliver milk by horse drawn carriage.” His teeth rotted. He went to South Africa, drove buses, married, and sailed to the United States, “only to discover that his record and lack of documentation made him inadmissible.”

Fed stimulus benefits still outweigh risks, Lockhart tells Reuters

The Federal Reserve is cognizant of the potential costs of its unconventional policies, but the economic benefits from asset purchases are still far greater than the potential costs, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told Reuters in an interview from his offices.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

The December meeting minutes seemed to signal a shift in sentiment at the central bank toward a greater focus on the policy’s costs. How concerned are you about the risks from QE? Has the cost/benefit tradeoff changed for you? What’s your sense of how long you’ll need to keep going?

I would not say at this point that, in any respect, the costs, which are largely longer-term and speculative, outweigh the benefits of maintaining a highly accommodative climate that is being contributed to by both large-scale asset purchases and our interest rate policy. Having said that, I think policymakers have to be aware that in a policy such as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases, continuing to build up the challenge of reversal of that policy, or the challenge of normalization, has to be on your mind. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where the costs outweigh the benefits. I’m a believer, although of course it’s very hard to isolate cause and effect in the real world, that our policy has benefited the economy and that the improving situation that we are now seeing is at least in part a result of monetary policy.

Show and tell: Fed’s balance sheet not as big as you thought

Size matters, and Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is not as big as shrill critics of QE3 would lead you to believe.

True, $3 trillion is serious money. It represents a tripling in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet since 2008, before the U.S. central bank unleashed the first round of its aggressive campaign of so-called quantitative easing. It is now on round three, and has committed to keep buying bonds until it spies a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.

But as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product), the Fed’s balance sheet is still smaller  than those of the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, and Bank of England, notching under 20 percent of GDP compared with over 30 percent of GDP for both the BOJ and ECB.

Don’t fear inflation boogeyman: BofA’s Harris

Worries about potential side-effects of unconventional monetary policy on financial markets are at least exaggerated, if not a near figment of the imagination.

This appears to be the conclusion of a comprehensively-argued research note by Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economist Ethan Harris.

The risk investors need to focus on is disinflation, not inflation; yet, remarkably, over the last several years critics of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing have “hijacked” the inflation debate, Harris says.

A statement of non-intent

The flurry of activity about a G7 currency statement yesterday can now be put in perspective. It will almost certainly happen but it’s very much going through the motions.

We’ve been saying for a while that having urged it to reflate its economy for some time, Japan’s partners could hardly complain now that it is. Lael Brainard of the U.S. Treasury basically let that cat out of the bag last night, warning against competitive devaluations but saying that Washington supported Tokyo’s efforts to reinvigorate growth and end deflation.

What we’ll get is a bland recommitment to market-determined exchange rates and not much more.

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.

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.