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What Needs to Happen Before We See a Big Recovery? | CYNICONOMICS

What Needs to Happen Before We See a Big Recovery? | CYNICONOMICS.

Posted on March 5, 2014 by ffwiley

what needs to happen yellen pic

In a Bloomberg article last May, Caroline Baum summed up the economy nicely in a single question:

Four-and-a-half years of an overnight rate near zero and aggressivesecurities purchases by the Fed have succeeded in raising asset prices. The question is whether higher asset prices will deliver jobs and economic growth before they become destabilizing.

In other words, will the real economy mend before excessive financial risk-taking kills the patient?

Baum called it a “horse race.”

With 2013′s economic data mostly complete, let’s have a look at where the race stands.

We’ll start by asking what needs to happen before we get the robust recovery that many economists have predicted for the past four years. Our answer is that one or both of two things need to occur:

  1. Households need to borrow at the pace we normally see in economic expansions.
  2. Household income needs to grow strongly.

Of these choices, the best result would be number 2 with as little as possible of number 1. The worst would be another credit-fueled expansion (more 1 than 2) that feels good for awhile but ends badly further down the road.

But isn’t capital spending the key ingredient?

You may argue we’re missing a third possibility – a capital spending boom. Many claim this is the best way to get things going again. We would say it puts the cart before the horse, at least as far as what’s prudent and realistic.

In America’s consumer-led economy, businesses have no reason to ramp up capital spending unless they expect strong gains in consumption. That seems unlikely. We’ll discuss capital spending in more detail in the future; for now, we’ll point to the economy’s ample unused capacitytepid overseas growthgrowing financial risks and President Obama’s bumbling incursions into private markets. Is this really the best environment for entrepreneurs to launch a capital spending spree? We doubt it.

Okay then, how about credit growth and household income?

We can’t rule out the possibility that the Fed gets the credit boom it’s looking for. But we don’t expect it in the near term for the same reasons that capital spending won’t take off, nor is it predicted by survey data.

Which leaves household income. According to the personal income report released Monday, annual growth in real disposable income jumped to 2.8% in January. Based on this alone, you might conclude that households are flush with cash. However, it’s not unusual for this indicator to bounce around between the end of one year and the beginning of the next due to tax law distortions. We screen out the noise by averaging all December figures with the subsequent January figures and using the average for both months:

what needs to happen 1

As indicated on the chart, real disposable income has been slowing for three years and currently shows no growth at all. We’ll see at least a small bounce next month, since the latest figures are held down somewhat by the 2013 increase in Social Security withholding and small increase in tax rates. There’s also a small effect from the expiration of extended unemployment benefits in January. But these considerations don’t fully explain the downwards trend.

A more important factor is that new jobs are paying poorly compared to the average existing job. Employers are picking up part-timers and low-paid service workers and creating very few “breadwinner jobs.” Therefore, disposable income is much weaker than you would think if you just focus on employment growth.

And not only does the personal income report give us another perspective on the quality of newly created jobs, but it seems to explain the overall economy pretty well. We see the same declining three-year trend in consumption:

what needs to happen 2

And in capital spending:

what needs to happen 3

The remaining components of private domestic demand – housing and commercial construction – are related to supply factors and credit growth as much as household income. Nonetheless, total residential and nonresidential (structures) investment shows a similar pattern to the other charts:

what needs to happen 4

What’s more, demand would be even weaker if households hadn’t compensated for poor income growth by reducing savings:

what needs to happen 5

Conclusions

For all the chest-thumping from policymakers about the declining unemployment rate and increase in GDP growth in the second half of last year, these statistics are easily misread. More telling indicators, such as private domestic demand, haven’t picked up at all. Nor would you expect a robust recovery as long as employers create mostly lousy jobs.

Getting back to Baum’s horse race between the real economy and the risk of financial instability, the real economy seems to be falling behind. Financial risks are growing steadily, as we discussed in “Tracking ‘Bubble Finance’ Risks in a Single Chart.” The real economy, on the other hand, is held back by weak income growth.

Looking forward, it’s worth keeping an eye on the personal income reports and other indicators of employee compensation. We’ll surely see some improvement as temporary effects wash out. But as long as the declining trend remains intact, don’t expect the big recovery that policymakers continue to predict.

Bonus link

For more on why employment growth isn’t as simple as Keynesian economists touting full employment targets would like you to believe, we refer readers once again to Arnold Kling’s PSST theory. Kling builds out an up-to-date variation of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. He explains why creating sustainable jobs after a bust can be a very slow process.

What Needs to Happen Before We See a Big Recovery? | CYNICONOMICS

What Needs to Happen Before We See a Big Recovery? | CYNICONOMICS.

Posted on March 5, 2014 by ffwiley

what needs to happen yellen pic

In a Bloomberg article last May, Caroline Baum summed up the economy nicely in a single question:

Four-and-a-half years of an overnight rate near zero and aggressivesecurities purchases by the Fed have succeeded in raising asset prices. The question is whether higher asset prices will deliver jobs and economic growth before they become destabilizing.

In other words, will the real economy mend before excessive financial risk-taking kills the patient?

Baum called it a “horse race.”

With 2013′s economic data mostly complete, let’s have a look at where the race stands.

We’ll start by asking what needs to happen before we get the robust recovery that many economists have predicted for the past four years. Our answer is that one or both of two things need to occur:

  1. Households need to borrow at the pace we normally see in economic expansions.
  2. Household income needs to grow strongly.

Of these choices, the best result would be number 2 with as little as possible of number 1. The worst would be another credit-fueled expansion (more 1 than 2) that feels good for awhile but ends badly further down the road.

But isn’t capital spending the key ingredient?

You may argue we’re missing a third possibility – a capital spending boom. Many claim this is the best way to get things going again. We would say it puts the cart before the horse, at least as far as what’s prudent and realistic.

In America’s consumer-led economy, businesses have no reason to ramp up capital spending unless they expect strong gains in consumption. That seems unlikely. We’ll discuss capital spending in more detail in the future; for now, we’ll point to the economy’s ample unused capacitytepid overseas growthgrowing financial risks and President Obama’s bumbling incursions into private markets. Is this really the best environment for entrepreneurs to launch a capital spending spree? We doubt it.

Okay then, how about credit growth and household income?

We can’t rule out the possibility that the Fed gets the credit boom it’s looking for. But we don’t expect it in the near term for the same reasons that capital spending won’t take off, nor is it predicted by survey data.

Which leaves household income. According to the personal income report released Monday, annual growth in real disposable income jumped to 2.8% in January. Based on this alone, you might conclude that households are flush with cash. However, it’s not unusual for this indicator to bounce around between the end of one year and the beginning of the next due to tax law distortions. We screen out the noise by averaging all December figures with the subsequent January figures and using the average for both months:

what needs to happen 1

As indicated on the chart, real disposable income has been slowing for three years and currently shows no growth at all. We’ll see at least a small bounce next month, since the latest figures are held down somewhat by the 2013 increase in Social Security withholding and small increase in tax rates. There’s also a small effect from the expiration of extended unemployment benefits in January. But these considerations don’t fully explain the downwards trend.

A more important factor is that new jobs are paying poorly compared to the average existing job. Employers are picking up part-timers and low-paid service workers and creating very few “breadwinner jobs.” Therefore, disposable income is much weaker than you would think if you just focus on employment growth.

And not only does the personal income report give us another perspective on the quality of newly created jobs, but it seems to explain the overall economy pretty well. We see the same declining three-year trend in consumption:

what needs to happen 2

And in capital spending:

what needs to happen 3

The remaining components of private domestic demand – housing and commercial construction – are related to supply factors and credit growth as much as household income. Nonetheless, total residential and nonresidential (structures) investment shows a similar pattern to the other charts:

what needs to happen 4

What’s more, demand would be even weaker if households hadn’t compensated for poor income growth by reducing savings:

what needs to happen 5

Conclusions

For all the chest-thumping from policymakers about the declining unemployment rate and increase in GDP growth in the second half of last year, these statistics are easily misread. More telling indicators, such as private domestic demand, haven’t picked up at all. Nor would you expect a robust recovery as long as employers create mostly lousy jobs.

Getting back to Baum’s horse race between the real economy and the risk of financial instability, the real economy seems to be falling behind. Financial risks are growing steadily, as we discussed in “Tracking ‘Bubble Finance’ Risks in a Single Chart.” The real economy, on the other hand, is held back by weak income growth.

Looking forward, it’s worth keeping an eye on the personal income reports and other indicators of employee compensation. We’ll surely see some improvement as temporary effects wash out. But as long as the declining trend remains intact, don’t expect the big recovery that policymakers continue to predict.

Bonus link

For more on why employment growth isn’t as simple as Keynesian economists touting full employment targets would like you to believe, we refer readers once again to Arnold Kling’s PSST theory. Kling builds out an up-to-date variation of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. He explains why creating sustainable jobs after a bust can be a very slow process.

Tracking “Bubble Finance” Risks in a Single Chart | CYNICONOMICS

Tracking “Bubble Finance” Risks in a Single Chart | CYNICONOMICS.

In his 712-page tour de force, The Great Deformation, David Stockman dissects America’s descent into the present era of “bubble finance.” He describes the housing bubble’s early stages as follows:

The American savings deficit was transparent after the turn of the century, but the Fed flat-out didn’t care. … Greenspan and his monetary central planners had a glib answer: do not be troubled, they admonished, the Chinese have volunteered to handle America’s savings function on an outsourced basis.

So instead of addressing the growing deformations of the American economy after the dot-com crash, the Fed chose to repeat the same failed trick; that is, it once again cranked up the printing presses with the intent of driving down interest rates and thereby reviving speculative carry trades in stocks and other risk assets.

Needless to say, it succeeded wildly in this wrong-headed game plan: by pushing interest rates down to the lunatic 1 percent level during 2003-2004, the Fed sent a powerful message to Wall Street that the Greenspan Put was alive and well, and that the carry trades now offered the plumpest spreads in modern history. Under the Fed’s renewed exercise in bubble finance, asset prices could be expected to rumble upward, whereas overnight funding costs would remain at rock bottom.

That is exactly what happened and the equity bubble was quickly reborn. After hitting bottom at about 840 in February 2003, the S&P 500 took off like a rocket in response to virtually free (1 percent) money available to fund leveraged speculation. One year later the index was up 36 percent, and from there it continued to steadily rise in response to reported GDP and profit growth, albeit “growth” that would eventually be revealed as largely an artifact of the housing and consumer credit boom which flowed from the very same money-printing policies which were reflating the equity markets.

In hindsight, it’s hard to refute Stockman’s perspective on the Fed’s role in the housing bubble. But that won’t stop some from trying, and especially the many academic economists beholden to the Fed. Research papers have stealthily danced around the Fed’s culpability for our crappy economy, as we discussed here.

More importantly, if Stockman is right about bubble finance, there’s more mayhem to come. Consider that denying failure and persisting with the same strategy are two sides of the same coin. Just as investors avoid the pain of admitting mistakes by holding onto losing positions, Fed officials who claim to have done little wrong are also more committed than ever to propping up asset markets with cheap money.

For those concerned about another policy failure, a key question is:  “As of today, where do we stand with respect to bubbles and bubble finance?”

We’ll compare two indicators that may help with an answer:

 

  1. Stock valuation indicator: To eliminate the problem that price-to-earnings (P/E) multiples tend to skyrocket when earnings shrink in a recession, we use price-to-peak-earnings (P/PE). This is the S&P 500 (SPY) index divided by the highest earnings result from any prior 12 month period. (See here for further discussion.)
  2. Monetary policy indicator: We use the difference between Fed policy rates (the discount rate until 1954 and fed funds rate thereafter) and inflation, averaged over the prior two years. By taking a two-year average, we capture lags in the economic effects of rate changes (commonly estimated at up to 24 months), while also smoothing out anomalies.

Here’s the data:

visualizing stock valuation 1

The chart shows that it wasn’t until the Fed’s battle with the Internet bust – described above by Stockman – that policy rates were first lowered below inflation at the same time that stocks were “fully valued” (which we defined as a P/PE above 17). The Fed had never before allowed the policy/valuation mix to drift into the chart’s bolded, upper-left quadrant.

Today, we’re well into our second experiment with that quadrant, which is a precarious place to be. It doesn’t take much analysis to see that strong policy stimulus despite an elevated price multiple is a recipe for bubbles.

In other words, the chart suggests another reason to expect the next bear market to be severe, as we discussed in “P/E Multiples, Deleveraging and the Big Experiment: Sizing Up the Next Bear Market” and again in “Bubble or Not, U.S. Stocks Are Priced to Deliver Dismal Long-Term Returns .”

Worse still, we haven’t even contemplated the Fed’s preoccupations as we head into Janet Yellen’s reign. The next time you puzzle over the transparency of the forward guidance or the timing of the taper or the transparency of the guidance for the timing of the taper (you get the idea), we suggest coming back to the data above.

In the bigger picture, interest rates alone are enough to show that we’re back in the danger zone.

Bonus chart

While the policy/valuation mix reached the chart’s bolded quadrant for the first time in 2003, you may wonder about close calls. Eliminating the bubble finance era, we find two:

visualizing stock valuation 2

The first occurred in late 1958 and 1959, and Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin met the challenge with aggressive increases in both interest rates and stock market margin requirements. Stockman discussed these policies in The Great Deformation, stressing that Martin responded to financial excess only four months after the end of a recession. Martin’s actions helped to slow lending growth while preventing asset bubbles.

The second close call occurred in 1972, when Fed Chairman Arthur Burns held the discount rate steady at a five-year low of 4.5%. Alongside President Nixon’s blunders, Burns’ dovish approach soon spawned double-digit inflation, a painful recession and a severe bear market.

Overall, four past chairmen faced a policy/valuation mix that was either headed toward or inside the bolded “danger zone” in our charts. Martin tightened preemptively and escaped unscathed. Burns and Greenspan will forever be seen to have lost the plot. The history books aren’t yet written for Ben Bernanke, but we don’t like his chances.

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