MacroScope

Pinning down the January effect on U.S. jobs figures

With Wall Street grappling to hold on to its record highs, a lot is riding on good news from the U.S. economy, no matter how high the Federal Reserve has set the bar for backing off its clear plan to end its monetary stimulus program this year.

After two huge upsets in a row on the important U.S. economic data releases since Christmas — December non-farm payrolls and the January ISM manufacturing report, forecasters are lining up again for an improvement in hiring.

The latest consensus from Reuters Polls is for a rebound to 185,000 after net hiring collapsed to just 74,000 the month before.

The new figure is surprisingly similar to the last consensus of 196,000 – giving the impression forecasters are hoping the December figures were a blip and are sticking to their usual tendency since the Great Recession began to predict  that the economy will soon revert back to the trend it was at before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Only a handful of economists have dared to revise down their forecast after a disappointment on the ADP payrolls data from Wednesday. That suggests most have learned the lesson that disappointment or surprise on ADP – it was much stronger than expected in December – gives no clear steer one way or the other on what will happen with the official jobs data that come out a few days later.

Why are US corporate profits so high? Because wages are so low

U.S. businesses have never had it so good.

Corporate cash piles have never been bigger, either in dollar terms or as a share of the economy.

The labor market, meanwhile, is still millions of jobs short of where it was before the global financial crisis first erupted over six years ago.

Coincidence?

Not in the slightest, according to Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs:

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:

How big is the Fed’s communications gap? Six months, give or take

You have to give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke credit for standing his ground on data-dependence. Despite widespread suspicions, including on this blog, that the central bank would begin reducing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September simply because the markets were expecting it, the Fed chose to hold off in the face of a still-fragile economy.

Here’s how Bernanke addressed the issue of the market’s surprise at the Fed’s decision at his press conference:

I don’t recall stating that we would do any particular  thing in this meeting. What we are going to do is the right thing for the economy. And our assessment of the data since June is that, taken collectively, that it didn’t quite meet the standard of satisfying our – or of ratifying or confirming our basic outlook for, again, increasing growth, improving labor markets, and inflation moving back towards target. We try our best to communicate to markets – we’ll continue to do that – but we can’t let market expectations dictate our policy actions. Our policy actions have to be determined by our best assessment of what’s needed for the economy.

Europe may still be ‘on path for a meltdown’: former Obama adviser Goolsbee

Reporting by Chris Kaufmann and Walden Siew

For all the enthusiasm about the euro zone’s exit from recession, many experts believe the currency union’s crisis is more dormant than over. That was certainly the message from Austan Goolsbee, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and professor at the University of Chicago. He spoke to the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.  

Here is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion:

What is your biggest worry about the U.S. economy right now?

A nagging worry is that if we grow 2 percent, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before the unemployment rate comes down to something reasonable. The nightmare worry is that Europe is still basically on path for a meltdown and that it ignites another financial crisis.

In my view the root of the problem is that most of southern Europe is locked in at the wrong exchange rate and will not be able to grow. Normal economics says that with a currency union you can 1) have massive labor mobility, 2) subsidies, 3) differential inflation, 4) grind down wages in the low productivity countries. But those are the only four things.

Raskin’s warning: ‘Shouldn’t pretend’ Fed capital rules are a panacea

Post corrected to show Brooksley Born is a former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) not a former Fed board governor.

Underlying the Federal Reserve recent announcement on new capital rules was a general sense of “mission accomplished.” The U.S. central bank, also a key financial regulator, has finally implemented requirements that it says could help prevent a repeat of the 2008 banking meltdown by forcing Wall Street firms to rely less heavily on debt, thereby making them less vulnerable during times of stress.

As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke put it in his opening remarks:

Today’s meeting marks an important step in the board’s efforts to enhance the resilience of the U.S. banking system and to promote broader financial stability.

Forget the ‘wealth effect’: real wages drive U.S. consumer spending

 

Federal Reserve officials have touted the ‘wealth effect’ from higher stock prices and rising home values as a key way in which monetary policy boosts consumer spending and economic activity. But according to the results of a recent survey from the Royal Bank of Canada, that ethereal feeling of being richer on paper is no substitute for cold, hard cash.

Here’s how Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke explained the benefits of rising asset prices to the real economy during a press conference in September.

The tools we have involve affecting financial asset prices and those are the tools of monetary policy. There are a number of different channels – mortgage rates, I mentioned corporate bond rates, but also prices of various assets, like for example the prices of homes. To the extent that home prices begin to rise, consumers will feel wealthier, they’ll feel more disposed to spend. If house prices are rising people may be more willing to buy homes because they think that they will make a better return on that purchase. So house prices is one vehicle.

Bernanke on Sen. Warren and too big to fail banks: ‘I agree with her 100 percent’

I asked Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke during his quarterly press conference this week if the central bank had its own estimate for the implicit subsidy that banks considered too big to fail receive in the form of cheaper borrowing. Senator Elizabeth Warren had confronted him at a recent hearing with a Bloomberg estimate of $83 billion which itself was derived from an IMF study. At the time, he dismissed her concern: “That’s one study Senator, you don’t know if that’s an accurate number.”

At the press briefing, Bernanke said the Fed does not have its own figures for Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail subsidy, in part because there were too many factors that made it difficult to calculate.

However, this time around, he seemed more sympathetic to Warren’s concerns than he had at the Senate Banking Committee hearing.

Priceless: The unfathomable cost of too big to fail

Just how big is the benefit that too-big-to-fail banks receive from their implicit taxpayer backing? Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke debated just that question with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren during a recent hearing of the Senate Banking Committee. Warren cited a Bloomberg study based on estimates from the International Monetary Fund that found the subsidy, in the form of lower borrowing costs, amounts to some $83 billion a year.

Bernanke, who has argued Dodd-Frank financial reforms have made it easier for regulators to shut down troubled institutions, questioned the study’s validity.

“That’s one study Senator, you don’t know if that’s an accurate number.”

Sen. Warren flags double-standard for criminal prosecutions of banks

Massachusetts’ rookie Senator Elizabeth Warren was out making waves again at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill today. The former Harvard law professor contrasted the legal code affecting drug prosecutions with what she depicted as cushy settlements for large Wall Street firms that committed egregious crimes.

Take Standard Chartered. They were fined $667 million by U.S. regulators for breaching sanctions related to Iran and three other countries. Yet the bank posted a tenth straight year of record profits.

If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to jail. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.