Archive for the ‘US Economy’ Category

file0001742232424The UK economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2015, and by 2.6 per cent over the past year. The US economy grew at an annualised pace of 2.3 per cent. The media and markets greeted the figures with relief, but they were wrong.

To understand why, first consider what things were like in the first quarter of this year. The UK grew by 0.4 per cent, that’s quarter on quarter, and the US grew by 0.6 per cent– annualised. Actually, the data for Q2 had been revised upwards, so the markets had a kind of double celebration. They were chuffed by the okay figures for Q2, and even more chuffed by the upwards revision for Q1. Even so, bear in mind that in the latest quarter both the UK and US economies grew at a rate that was still way below average. As for Q1, the data may say that the US grew by 0.6 per cent annualised in Q1, but frankly that is a pretty awful performance. It’s just not as awful as the figures originally suggested. It is like coming last in a race, and then celebrating because the judges discovered they had made a mistake and in fact you only came second from last.

History tells us that economies tend to enjoy a period of above average growth when coming out of recession. History tells us that when an economy suffers a one off shock, which is supposed to have been what happened in Q1 of this year, then the following quarter should expand at a faster than normal pace to make up for the lost production of the previous quarter.

We are told that poor figures on the first quarter were down to a shockingly bad winter in the northeast corner of the US. This even affected US imports to the UK, knocking the UK economy. If that is so, however, shouldn’t the second quarter have seen unusually fast expansion, making up for lost ground?

In the US, the Federal Reserve is losing patience, it will be a big surprise if US interest rates don’t go up very soon, September most likely. Rates will be rising in the UK soon too, probably January.

Once again, consider the lesson of history. The Fed increased rates in 1994, after a period in which they had been at 3 per cent for 18 months or so. A year and a half later, US interest rates were at 6 per cent. Crisis soon followed, however. The global economy had got used to low US interest rates, when they rose capital left developing markets and headed west. We had the Asian crisis of 1997 and the Russian crisis of 1998. The global banking system tottered.

A similar story occurred all over again the following decade. This time though, US rates were cut to 1 per cent, stayed there for about a year, and then gradually began to rise. Within a year or two, come 2008, the global banking system did more than totter, it fell over. We all know how nasty that was.

This time US rates have been at near zero per cent for almost seven years. As they rise, the shockwaves across the world will be nasty.

The problem is compounded. Critics of the Fed say that by cutting interest rate to near zero, it has nothing left to give in the event things make a turn for the worse. The snag with that is that if the Fed hadn’t cut rates so low its economy may have suffered an even more nasty turnaround. It is like a runner in a race, holding back for a sprint finish. But if the race leader sets a fast pace, and our runner goes with the leader and has the sprint run out of him, or indeed her. You can’t criticise the runner for going too fast, there was no choice.

In short, rates are low because they had to be, now they are rising because they have to. Neither the US or UK economy are strong though, indeed they are more like a wheezy athlete, about to start a long uphill climb.

The world had de-coupled, we were told. Time was, that when the US consumer sneezed, the rest of the world got a cold.

Then in 2008, the US consumer was sent to bed, with a thermometer in his/her mouth, and the rest of the world was in agony.

Then something odd happened. After a few months, in which everyone suffered, the emerging world did okay. China did more than okay, it boomed.  The BRICs, or if you want to include South Africa in that illustrious group, the BRICS, took the baton of growth from the US.

Sure there was talk of currency wars, sure the UK limped along like a cripple on broken crutches, but the global economy did well. It had de-coupled we were told.

Or did it? There are time lags in these things.

Now things seem to have gone into reverse. Sure China is still growing, but it is struggling to change from export to consumer led growth. India is picking up, Brazil looks dire, Russia looks worse, and if you want to make the small ‘s’ at the end of BRICS into a big “S” South Africa  is struggling.

There are signs Japan may be recovering, more of that in another article, the Eurozone is well and truly stuck in a very low gear, or even reverse, but the UK and US are the new stars.

The UK economy slowed a bit in Q3, with quarterly growth down to 0.7 per cent, from 0.9 per cent the quarter before. But then the UK’s main trading partner is the Eurozone. At least investment is rising at a very brisk pace, and that gives good reason for cheer.

But there is even more reason to cheer the US.

The year got off to an awful start, with a cold winter and unfortunate timing of the inventory cycle hitting  the economy hard. Was the Q1 contraction a one-off?   Or was it a sign of something more serious?

Well the data on the US economy has been unremittingly good, ever since.  Take for example the latest US consumer Confidence Index from the Conference Board. It hit a new seven year high in October. If you like your numbers, then you may be interested to know the index hit 94.5. The last time it was so high was in October 2007.

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Yet, the global economy still struggles. If it has de-coupled, then right now this is negative thing.

But there is one other issue here.

As the US recovers, the Fed makes noises about upping rates. This is spooking markets, and hitting emerging economies hard.

It is not that the US economy is no longer the lynchpin of the global economy. It still is. It is just that the actions of the Fed seem to count for more than the well-being of the US consumer.

But can the US consumer yet save the day? Only time will tell, but it is surely the case that if US Consumer Confidence continues to grow, then the rest of the world will grow with it – eventually.

p.s. I have been away for a while to complete my new book, called ‘iDisrupted‘ which is available to purchase via Amazon. If you are interested in my thoughts about how the incredible changes in technology are likely to change our world forever then you are invited to buy the book and let me know whether you agree or disagree with my predictions. Further details about the book can be found on www.idisrupted.com

Michael Baxter, The Money Spy

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“I think I should warn you,” said Ben Bernanke, “if you think I am making myself clear, then that means you have probably misunderstood me.” Witty, and a tad daft. It is just that actually those words were not spoken by Mr Bernanke at all; rather they were spoken by his predecessor as the Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.

In fact, when Ben took over at the Fed he went to great lengths to say he was not one for cryptic remarks. He would say it as he saw it. He promised to be something of a blunt speaker. (Ay up lad, I say wat I mean tha noes). Last week, however, he seemed to do an impressive impersonation of Mr Greenspan. His lips and eyes, or his statement and his inference, seemed all seemed out of sync.

Don’t get confused,” said the Fed Chairman, “The overall message [from the Fed’s rate setting committee] is accommodation.”

His words had been eagerly awaited. Last month Ben suggested the Fed may be tightening monetary policy soon. This time he said they will be doing no such thing. Rather that we may see a “gradual and possible change in the mix of [monetary] instruments.”

So what does that mean? A change in mix suggests the details are different but the overall thrust the same.

So that’s the headline.

What about the substance?

The latest minutes from the Fed said that many members of the FOMC – that’s the Federal Open Market Committee – “indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labour market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases.” Again this needs translating. “Many” is supposed to be code for slightly over half. Subsequent to the meeting of the FOMC to which these minutes relate, job data on the US has seen another big improvement. That rather suggests that more than half of the men and women who determine monetary policy are on the cusp of agreeing to “slow the pace of asset purchases.”

So Ben says one thing, and the minutes say something else.

The minutes also said that ‘some members’ wanted to see evidence that GDP growth was picking up before they agreed to tighten policy. So let’s decode that. In this case, “some” means fewer than half. The data on GDP is not expected to be so good in Q2. In other words, fewer than half are not ready to tighten policy.

Would you believe it? The markets loved all this. Somehow they concluded that the Fed is not going to tighten monetary policy as quickly as they had feared, so they went out and bought, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs.

Capital Economics took a look at the Fed’s words and concluded that they suggest QE will be reduced somewhat in September, will cease altogether in 2014 and rates will rise in 2015. This is actually pretty much the same as what it was saying before the Fed released its minutes.

In other words, all that has really changed is that the Fed is saying much the same thing as it was a few weeks ago; it is just using more ambiguous words to say it.

And that was enough to get the markets all bullish again.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The US economy has not been good at exporting for some time. Recent data shows that its imports of goods and services still lag way behind exports. Yet there is one thing the US is good at exporting and that is economic news. And of late it has been exporting good economic news. So what is it; why; is it for real, and does that give us reason for hope?

Sometimes recoveries seem to be built on hot air. Sometimes they are down to confidence, and confidence creates growth, and growth creates confidence. During the boom years of the noughties, economic boom was built on debt. Households borrowed because house prices were up, and they rose partly because interest rates were so low, and partly because credit was so easy to come by, but there was something wrong.

The boom was built on foundations as shaky as a shaky house built of shaky match sticks, sitting on top of shaky hill made from quick sand. This time the recovery seem to sit on foundations that are a lot more robust. Yet still the doubters say it is all a lie.

So why the reason for cheer?

First and foremost, US households have cut debt. US household debt has fallen from $12.7 trillion in 2008, to $11.2 trillion at the end of last year. In fact, according to IMF data, US household debt to income has fallen from a ratio of 1.3 in the mid-noughties to around 1.05. In fact, the ratio is now higher in the Eurozone. At the same time, the value of US household assets have risen. According to Capital Economics: “Every $1.00 of debt is now backed by $6.30 of assets, whereas before the recession it was backed by $4.80 of assets.” Capital Economics, for so long a bear on the US economy, recently said that the US consumer is now well placed to drive “a faster period of economic growth.”

Secondly, US banks are in better shape. Q1 saw record profits for US banks, while their deposit-to-liabilities ratio recently hit a 20-year high of 84.6 per cent. See: US banks see biggest profits ever: is the US back? 

Thirdly, the US fiscal deficit this year is expected to be $642 billion, or so estimates the Congressional Budget Office. To put that in context, last year the deficit was $1.1 trillion. It will, in fact, be the first time since 2008 that the US deficit is less than $1 trillion. And, by the way, not so long ago the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a deficit of almost $200 billion more than that.

As for those who say the US sits on a financial and demographic time bomb, and that surging health care costs alone are sure to bankrupt the world’s largest economy there are some reasons to be cynical about such cynicism. See: The scaremongers are wrong: the US is not even vaguely close to going bust  and US medicare time bomb begins to look more like a pretty time piece 

US consumer confidence recently hit a five and half year high. US house prices are rising, and, unlike in the UK, they are rising from a point where the average price to income is below the historical average of 1.2 million, with June seeing a rise of 195,000.

Given all this evidence, why are many so cynical?

Some cynicism seems to be built on genuine concerns, while others seem to be cynical for its own sake.

One challenge is that this year US government spending will be falling while taxes are rising. This may be good for cutting government debt, but it may yet prove disastrous for the economy, and indeed the IMF has slated the US government for relaxing its fiscal stimulus too soon. But then that is what you get when you have a political system made up of two parties that seem to be hell bent on putting self-interest over national interests.

Partly as a result of the US fiscal stimulus’ going into reverse, recent  Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) have been disappointing, with the latest PMI tracking US non-manufacturing falling to a three year low. The latest PMIs suggest the US will grow at around 1 per cent in Q2 on an annualised basis. By recent standards, that is poor. But then these are problems with the short term.

Another challenge relates to the very difficult balancing act that the Fed has to manage. It is now talking about cutting back on its quantitative easing or QE programme quite soon – September being the date expected by the markets. The Fed has been buying $85 billion worth of bonds every month. To begin with the Fed will not stop QE, but merely slow down. The feeling is that it won’t stop altogether until next year, and rates won’t rise until 2015.

Not all see why. For one thing US inflation is modest, and appears to pose no threat at all. Fears that were commonplace a year or so ago, that QE would lead to runaway inflation currently look somewhat silly. So they ask: why cut rates so soon?

A more serious concern relates to ways in which the actual data may be misleading. So sure, US employment may be up, US unemployment may be falling, but US employment to the US population is not much less today than during the height of the recession. In part this is down to more people retiring, but it appears this is also partly down to some people pretty much giving up, and falling off the unemployment stats.

Then there are some who voice concern over student loans in the US. The big critic here is Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. See: Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream

This all leaves two big pluses.

The first plus is shale gas. This has led to falling energy costs, handing US households more disposable income after paying for energy. The second is signs of a kind of renaissance in manufacturing. This shows up in many ways. Both Apple and Google, for example, have recently announced that certain products will be made in the USA.

As US productivity rises, unit labour costs fall, and unit labour costs in China rise, the gap with China improves in favour of the US. More exciting is the potential of 3D printing, which may yet create a new kind of local craftsman, as is suddenly becomes viable for consumers to have bespoke products designed especially for them, or for just a small number of people.

A sustained US recovery is not guaranteed, but the odds are about as favourable as they have been for a very long time.

© Investment & Business News 2013

If you like your news with a twist of misery and a slice of disaster thrown in, then apologies, you will be disappointed with the latest economic data coming out of the US. On the other hand, if you like to be cheered up, read on.

The latest batch of good news out of the US came in a set of three.

Firstly US consumer confidence, according to the closely watched Conference Board Index, hit a near five and a half year high in June, with the index hitting 81.4. The last time it was higher was January 2008.

Okay, admittedly the data used to draw up the index only goes up to Mid-June, and stock markets crashed after that. But then again, bear in mind that US consumer confidence is one of the drivers of the US stock market. Some might say that US consumer confidence is riding high because the Dow and S&P 500 recently hit new all-time highs, but you could respond by saying yes, but part of the reason for stock market strength has been buoyant US consumer confidence.

But don’t forget that there are reasons beyond surging stocks for US consumers to feel chuffed with themselves at present. For one thing, as pointed out here several times of late, US household debt to income has fallen sharply since 2007.

Then there is US house prices. They have been looking up lately too, and that is also good for US consumer confidence. Bear in mind, too, that US house prices to rent and income are now below the historical average, so there is a good fundamental reason for prices to rise.

And that brings us to good news item number two. According to the latest Case Shiller US house prices index, April saw prices rise by 12.1 per cent year on year, and by 2.5 per cent over March. In fact, the month on month rise was the highest ever reported in the 12 year history of the index

And if that isn’t enough reason for cheer, yesterday also saw data on US durable orders for May, and that too was up.

Actually, it was literally up, with sales of aircraft soaring 51 per cent – Boeing sold 252 planes in the month, compared to 51 in April.

Even stripping out transport goods, core durables’ orders increased by 0.7 per cent month on month.

Apologies again. It is fun to be cynical, and talk about the Fed squashing the world by ending QE.

And indeed, if rates are set to rise, this will be a problem for some countries.

But relative to what we have become used to, the news out of the US really has been encouraging of late, and, just for now, cast cynicism aside and enjoy the moment.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The IMF is a critic. It reckons the US has hit the brakes too fast, and wants to see more stimulus measures. As for the UK, it wants to see more short term borrowing to fund investment into infrastructure. The Bank of International Settlements (BIS), often called the world’s central bank, is a critic too, but for almost the opposite reasons.

Time to stop doing whatever it takes.

In a report out today, the BIS began by referring to Mario Draghi’s famous words when he said: “We will do whatever it takes to save the euro.” The BIS said: “But we are past the height of the crisis, and the goal of policy today is to return to strong and sustainable growth. Authorities need to hasten structural reforms so that economic resources can more easily be used in the most productive manner. Households and firms have to complete the repair of their balance sheets.

Governments must redouble their efforts to ensure the sustainability of their finances. And regulators have to adapt the rules to an increasingly interconnected and complex financial system and ensure that banks set aside sufficient capital to match the associated risks. Only forceful efforts at such repair and reform can return economies to strong and sustainable real growth.”

This is pure austerity economics, right out of the Austrian school of economics.

Then the BIS laid into what are often called the zombies.

It said: “Productivity gains and employment in the major advanced economies have sagged in recent years, especially where pre-crisis growth was severely unbalanced. Before they can return to sustainable growth, these countries will need to reallocate labour and capital across sectors. Structural rigidities that hamper this process are likely to hold back the economy’s productive potential. Both productivity and employment tend to be weaker in economies with rigid product markets than in ones with more flexible ones.

Similarly, employment rates tend to be lower where labour markets are more rigid.Conversely, countries with flexible labour markets recover more quickly from severely imbalanced downturns. They also create more jobs. Reforms that enhance the flexibility of labour and product markets could be swiftly rewarded with improved growth and employment.”

So what is it really saying?

Firstly, that QE has run its course, and monetary policy needs to return to normal. Secondly, that we need to see more creative destruction; let businesses fail, because the vacuum that is created can be filled by more efficient firms, and productivity will start to improve.

But is that really right? The BIS might be saying that QE has done its job, and now it is time to go back to normal, but frankly it never was a fan of QE in the first place. It may say that now is the time for governments to pay back debts, but then it also said that last year and the year before.

It is suggesting that as the economy changes, now is the time to implement the changes that it wanted to see implemented even before the economy had changed.

Do we really need to see create destruction? Take one sector, as an example, the UK High Street. This has seen rather a lot of destruction to date, precious little creativity has followed.

Then again, the recovery does appear to be starting in the US, and say one thing for the US, it does have an extraordinary ability to reinvent itself.

Being a cynic is fun. It is a good laugh, finding the flaws in any hint of optimism. And many have had a ball of a time laughing at the argument that it is good news on the US economy that lies behind the Fed announcing plans to ease back on QE.

But actually, there really has been good news coming out of the US of late. And with signs that US manufacturing is finding new opportunities, even that 3D printing may create new jobs, we could even be at the early stages of seeing something of a reversal of what we have seen in recent years of the trend of growing inequality.

The BIS might be right to say we are approaching the time when the US needs to see monetary policy return to normal – but that is happening anyway.

But the euro needs is own version of QE, proper QE that is, not Draghi playing with words. Japan’s experiment in Abeonomics needs to be given more time, and QE needs to be used more imaginatively to directly fund investment in the UK.

History tells us, that monetary policy has often been reversed too soon while an economy recovered from a depression recession/depression. Right now, there is a real danger that monetary policy will be tightened too soon. And the BIS seems to be oblivious to this risk.

© Investment & Business News 2013

The US household is cutting debt.

In fact it has cut debt so much, there is even talk that the good old boys (and girls) who constitute the US consumer will soon be well placed to hit the plastic, open up their wallets and purses and spend like they used to. In short, the US consumer may be close to once again becoming the lynch pin of the global economy. That’s good news right?

Oddly, the markets are panicking. There is talk of a bond bubble. Across the developed world many countries are heavily exposed. But is it is the emerging markets, and the BRICS in particular, who seem to be most in danger?

Today’s series of articles delves deeper. Here is the really good news, however; opportunity knocks for those who keep their nerve and can rise above market fashion.

© Investment & Business News 2013