Posts Tagged ‘fed’

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

Yesterday was a day for selling. But it is noticeable that while gold fell to a 34 month low, and US government bonds to a 22 month low, on the whole equities merely fell to a one month low.

At the time of writing gold is trading at $1,295. To put that price in context, back in September last year it was going for $1,778. The last time it was so cheap was September 2010.

Some say they are puzzled by the falls, but gold really is one of those riddles wrapped in an enigma – a golden enigma, in fact.

Gold rose in the aftermath of the finance crisis, and then again in the aftermath of the aftermath, because many feared a major meltdown as countries raced to devalue, and it was being said that QE created the danger of hyperinflation.

Talk of QE creating hyperinflation always was nonsense. As this column has said before, what matters is the broad money supply, and at a time when banks didn’t want to lend, while households were trying to repair their balance sheets, there was little chance of the broad money supply rising significantly, whatever central banks did.

Now the US economy is showing signs of real recovery, and the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has suggested QE will be easing up soon and interest rates are likely to rise in 2015, everything looks different.

When real interest rates are negative, the fact that gold offers no yield is a trivial concern. But now that rates seem set to rise, that lack of yield seems to matter a great deal.

As for bonds, the yield on US 10 year treasuries has risen from 1.38 per cent last July to 2.39 per cent at the time of writing.

Markets are moving away from so-called safe harbour assets. During the era of QE, many feared currency wars, as loose monetary policy pushed down on the dollar, and other countries tried to devalue so as not to lose their competitive edge. Now the era of loosening is approaching an end; currency wars have moved to currency peace, and the new fear is that some currencies are in danger of becoming too weak.

As for equities, they too have fallen sharply, but just remember that the falls are not as drastic as recent rises. The FTSE 100 started 2013 on 5,898, rose to 6,840 last month, going close to the all-time high set in 1999, before falling to 6,159 last night.

Look at how equities have fallen since the end of May, and the sell-off looks drastic. Look at equities this year, and the market still looks attractive.

Above all, just remember that it is good news on the US economy that lies behind markets selling.

As rates rise, there will be losers, and for a while the markets may even punish those with strong fundamentals, but a resurgent US consumer is a good thing, and once the dust has settled we will see plenty of winners. But watch the Eurozone, emerging Europe, and maybe Brazil, for the real woe.

© Investment & Business News 2013

QE is drawing to a close; that is reason to panic. QE is set to be ramped up; that is reason to panic. That is what some say who see any news as bad news, including news that is totally contradictory.

The US is back, and the economic crisis is drawing to a close. ‘Celebrate,’ say the optimists. QE is coming to an end, ‘Celebrate,’ they say. ‘QE is set to accelerate, ‘Celebrate,’ they say. The pessimists pretty much say the opposite.

That is the nature of the markets. The news contradicts itself, the markets fall into their two camps whatever it says. They interpret everything as conforming to their pre-existing views.

Just to remind you, in the US, the Fed is dropping hints that its QE programme is drawing to a close.

In Japan, QE has been reignited, but this time in really big fashion. In the euro area, interest rates have been cut to half a per cent. In the UK, there is a feeling that once Mark Carney steps into Mervyn King’s shoes at the Bank of England, we will see a lot more QE.

So that is both more and less QE.

Bond prices have fallen. In the US the yield on US government ten year bonds has risen from 1.6 per cent at the beginning of May to 2.13 per cent by the last day of the month – that was a 14 month high, by the way.

The BIS, which is a lot like the world’s central bank, says this is a taste of things to come. In itslatest quarterly review it talked about the markets living under the spell of QE.

It says that the road will be bumpy as conditions return to normal.

But is that really a reason to fret? Over the last few years the economy has been in crisis mode and low bond yields have been a symptom of that. As we return to normal, surely bond yields will rise, and that is good.

Except, of course, who knows whether we are returning to normal, and indeed markets panic, even when times are good.

If the good times return, markets may well panic over bonds and we may yet see a crash. There is more reason to worry over emerging market bonds. So that’s ironic, impriving economy may be a reason for market turmoil.

But perhaps the fear is that bonds yields rise, even if conditions have not returned to normal. See:The Great Reset

© Investment & Business News 2013

The hurricane delayed things. The latest report on US consumer confidence was due on Tuesday, but in the end it had to wait until Thursday. When it saw the light of day, the news was good.

Last month US consumer confidence, according to the Conference Board, hit its highest level since February 2008. If these things interest you, the index hit 72.2.

Actually, QE may have something to do with it. When the Fed goes out and buys bonds via quantitative easing, it forces up bond prices. As a result, equity prices rise (probably) and house prices stop crashing (maybe).  US consumers like it when their equity holdings rise in value, hence the jump in their confidence.

But there was more good news from the US. The latest Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) from ISM was out yesterday too, and while it was not exactly the stuff that runaway booms are made of, it wasn’t half bad either. In fact the headline index rose to 51.7, from 51.5 in September and 49.5 in August. Okay, they’re just numbers.  “How are you feeling today?” “Today I feel three?” It makes no sense. Consumers’ confidence is 72.2, manufacturers’ 51.7. You might ask 51.7 what? Wishes perhaps?

But it’s the history that makes these numbers mean something. For the PMI, any score over 50 is meant to suggest growth, and the reading for October was the highest score since May.

This evening (2 November) the latest US jobs report will be out. The last one had US unemployment falling to 7.8 per cent, pretty much back to the level it occupied when George Dubya and Dick Cheney moved out of the White House.  (And someone called Obama moved in). If the data is good, Barack will surely be chuffed.

Not that he must look too chuffed. It does seem as though the world is divided into three. Those who think Barack gets pushed around, does not speak up for himself, and needs to do the political equivalent of punching Mitt Romney on the nose. Then there are those who say he looks Presidential and rises above that kind of nastiness. Then there are those who just don’t like him.

Returning to the US economy, house prices may be the key. Back in 2006 residential investment as a share of US GDP was 6 per cent. In 2012 it stood at just 2 per cent. No wonder Uncle Sam lost a shed load of jobs.

Of course, the fall in US house prices mattered for two other reasons. As prices fell, consumers lost confidence (and by the way in July 2007 the US consumer confidence index passed 110), and it mattered for another reason.

What was it now? Thinking…

Oh yes, that’s right, it led to the subprime debacle, followed by a global banking crisis.

According to Keith Wade, Chief Economist at Schroders: “The number of residential properties in negative equity at the end of the second quarter was 10.8 million (22.3 per cent), down from 11.4 million (23.7 per cent) at the end of the first quarter….around 1.3 million households have moved out of negative equity since the beginning of 2012, although 2.3 million remain in ‘near-negative’ equity (less than 5 per cent equity in the property). For these homeowners the incentive is to pay down debt before looking to borrow again.”

The truth is that US house prices have been rising of late – not much, but the downward trend seems to have reversed. Mr Wade put it down to QE. He said: “Whilst QE may not be stimulating stronger borrowing, it is helping to drive investors out of low yielding cash and bonds and into higher yielding assets such as property.”

Meanwhile, devastating though Hurricane Sandy was, at least America seems to be waking up to the reality that there is something odd going on with the climate. Who knows for sure whether the storm was down to climate change, but there has to be a chance. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reckons there is a connection, hence his Road to Damascus type of conversion to back Obama for the election.

But moving away from the US economy, while Sandy might have given a shock to climate change sceptics, the ‘Daily Mail’ recently ran a piece rubbishing the whole idea of manmade climate change. Apparently global temperatures have not risen since 1997. Except of course, the data was distorted by an El Nino at the beginning of the period in question and La Nina at the end of the period. Strip out the effects from the El Nino and La Nina from the data, and in fact global temperatures have very much been on an upwards trajectory since 1997. Anyway, talking about rubbish, here is a link to the ‘Daily Mail’ article, see: Global warming stopped 16 years ago, reveals Met Office report quietly released… and here is the chart to prove it

And here is a rebuttal from the Met office:

The ‘Mail’ makes the case for some kind of censorship of the press in pretty impressive fashion.

And finally, here is a piece by yours truly covering a rather shocking idea to put forward by Martin Wolf at the ‘FT’. He has suggested that the Bank of England needs to start buying foreign bonds so that sterling will tumble in value. See: Is it time the Bank of England started buying foreign debt?

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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