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Posts Tagged ‘economic indicators’

Is The Fed Giving a Pass on Sovereign Debt?

Part of the role of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) is to provide oversight to their member banks.  Approximately one-third of all U.S. commercial banks are members of the Federal Reserve.  All national banks are required to be members, and certain state chartered banks can choose to become a member.

Fed oversight involves a variety of bank operations.  Recently, the Fed conducted stress tests of the large national banks.  The purpose was to assess the strength of the bank and their ability to withstand another major economic calamity, like what happened throughout 2008.  One of their goals is preventing any bank from becoming “too big to fail.”

Bank capital is one of the measures regulators use to measure bank strength and stability.  Bank capital requirements are intended to guarantee a bank is able to withstand certain losses in its investment and loan portfolio and still meet the withdrawal demands of its depositors.

The following article describes a Citigroup analysis which discovered a recent trend in the U.S. and Europe regarding bank capital requirements and sovereign debt.  The Citigroup study revealed that bank regulators at the Fed and their European counterparts were not counting sovereign debt as part of the bank capital requirements.  The Citigroup analysts concluded the primary reason for excluding the sovereign debt was to help guarantee a market for sovereign bonds.

The United States and European countries are currently experiencing huge budget deficits.  In order to keep their respective governments operating, the nations’ treasuries and central banks are issuing new government bonds on a daily basis.  Thus, there is a constant need for someone to purchase these bonds.  If the market for a particular nation’s bond were to disappear, catastrophe would quickly follow.  Consider what would happen in the U.S. if investors stopped buying the additional $100 billion of new bonds it takes to keep the U.S. government operating each month.

Just imagine what would happen to inflation and the U.S. economy if investors are reluctant to purchase U.S. Treasuries.  You only have to look at the current problems in Europe.  Spanish 10-year bonds issued this past week carried an interest rate in excess of 6% while 10-year U.S. Treasuries were selling around 1.75%.  If the U.S. had to pay interest on our $15.8 trillion debt at a 6% rate, the annual interest cost would be near $1 trillion.  Think that might negatively impact the economy?

The Fed and European Central Bank are largely responsible for the monetary policy of their respective nations.  Interest rates and inflation are critical factors affecting monetary policy and economic results.  Consequently, you can see the vested interest the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have in making sure there is a steady market for sovereign debt.   As a result, it appears these institutions are willing to give favorable treatment to sovereign debt when measuring bank capital.

I’m not implying there is collusion amongst the bankers.  Contrary to what some people believe, I don’t there is some grand conspiracy.  With a few exceptions, most of the people involved are honest people doing their best in a very difficult economic and political environment.  Central bankers are given tremendous responsibility for a nation’s economic health, yet they are seldom the people making important decisions on taxes, spending and debt, which greatly impact the economy.

My primary purpose in writing this article is sharing information.  I haven’t seen many articles addressing this topic, so I thought it was worth discussing.  Additionally, I think it’s another indication of the long-term problems of deficit spending and huge national debt.   Without realizing it, policy makers can make poor decisions in order to encourage people to buy sovereign debt, because it will be catastrophic if it ever stops.  It’s like a house of cards that’s growing and requires more effort to keep it from collapsing.

Time will tell, but it seems like exempting sovereign debt from bank capital requirements might be one of those decisions.

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The Mortgage Mess: It’s Still Messy

Even though the U.S. economy officially came out of recession in mid-2009, do you wonder why it doesn’t feel that way?  There may be a lot of reasons, but I think the continued turmoil of the residential real estate market is one of the key factors.

The housing market and mortgage industry may not be as messy as it was in 2008 and 2009, but it’s still messy.  TARP, HAMP and other government policies and programs may have stabilized the banking system and the financial markets, but the financial situation of many homeowners hasn’t improved much in the past five years… and for many, it’s gotten worse.

As this article cites, Zillow estimates approximately 16 million (one-third of all U.S. homeowners) owe more than their homes are worth (a.k.a. underwater).   It’s quite discouraging to think that after years of slugging through this challenging economy, you might be further behind today than you were five years ago.  Some areas of the country have definitely been hit much harder than others, but on a national basis, if you have positive equity in your house, one of your neighbors does not.  In Las Vegas, where I live, even though thousands of people have lost their homes to foreclosure and values have decreased by approximately 50% from the peak, a whopping seven out of ten homeowners are still underwater.

There are significant economic implications for having so many homes underwater.  It impacts people’s ability to relocate, puts them in a perilous financial position if their income decreases, limits their ability to refinance, and pares back their spending.  However, I think the most significant factor is the psychological effect it has on their outlook about the economy, the nation and their future.

For many people, their homes represent a significant portion of their wealth.  They may have spent years saving up for a downpayment or building the equity in their home, and it’s frustrating to see it wiped out in a matter of months.  Granted there were some people who bought homes they shouldn’t have, took out mortgages they couldn’t afford or treated their home like a personal piggy bank.  However, for millions of Americans, they simply bought at the wrong time and their homes lost value through no fault of their own.

The psychological effects of the mortgage mess should not be underestimated.  Owning a home is considered to be part of the American Dream.  It’s one of the reasons home ownership is much higher in the U.S. than in many other industrialized nations.  Sadly, the dream of millions of Americans turned into a nightmare.  Consequently, it’s only logical for people to feel apprehensive and fearful of the economy and the future, when something they thought was a sure thing (owning their home), turned out to be much more uncertain than they could have imagined.  Furthermore, home ownership is a very personal matter.  It’s unlike any other investment, because it’s the place where your family connects and memories are made.

Unlike the empty promises politicians often make, I won’t say there is an easy solution to the mess, nor do I think it’s likely to get cleaned up any time soon.  If there were an easy solution, it would have already been done by now.  Therefore, I think it’s going to be a long and arduous process to reduce the number of homeowners who are underwater.

Consequently, I don’t think we’ll see a resurgence in optimism about the economy, until the number of underwater homes is dramatically reduced.  It’s hard to feel positive about the future when you feel insecure or afraid of losing the place where you live and raise your family.

Is the Unemployment Rate Misleading?

The April employment statistics were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last Friday.  The official U.S. unemployment rate for April 2012 dropped to 8.1%.  It hasn’t been this low since January 2009.

According to the BLS, 115,000 new jobs were added to the workforce in April.  Certainly that is good news for the 115,000 who are now employed, and after three years of high unemployment, it’s encouraging to see the rate dropping.

The report has been out for a week, which has given people more opportunity to dig into the numbers.  Unfortunately, the headline is much more encouraging than some of the supporting data.  Here are a few facts to consider

  • 310,000 people left the workforce in April (that’s nearly 3 times as many jobs which were created).  People who are no longer looking for a job contributed more to the reduction in the unemployment rate, than those who obtained a new job.
  • There are 968,000 people looking for work, who are classified as “discouraged.”
  • 7.8 million people are working part-time for economic reasons.
  • 5.1 million people have been unemployed for more than 39 weeks.
  • 324,000 women dropped out of the labor force in the past two months.

So is the unemployment rate misleading?  Personally, I don’t think it’s misleading, but you also shouldn’t take it at face value.  A deeper understanding of the supporting data will provide a better picture of what’s really happening.

Realize the unemployment rate is only an estimate.  No one knows for sure how many people are truly unemployed and looking for work.  For example, many people think it’s misleading to exclude those who have given up looking for work.  While that may be the case for discouraged and frustrated people who can’t find a job, what about those who retire, start their own business or decide to stay home to take care of a family member?  Those people may have no intentions of re-entering the workforce, at least in the near term, so it would also be misleading to count them as unemployed.  Thus, the quandary of who should be classified as unemployed.

I don’t think the unemployment rate is misleading, unless the BLS changes its data collection and classification measures, which happened at the beginning of 2011 (read more here).  Since the BLS hasn’t changed their methodology recently, the drop in the unemployment rate can be considered legitimate.  However, you should investigate some of the supporting data, and draw your own conclusions about the U.S. employment situation.

Since it’s an election year, expect politicians and political pundits to quote the rate as a measure of their job performance or some other elected official and make their political argument for supporting a particular candidate.  Don’t be misled by a headline or political statement, since they rarely tell the whole story.  The unemployment rate may not be misleading, but other people can be.

Effects of the Credit Downgrade

Late Friday afternoon, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) announced it was downgrading the credit rating of U.S. Treasury securities from AAA to AA+ and retained its negative outlook.  Although S&P previously announced it was considering a downgrade, the announcement was a bombshell dropped at the end of a tumultuous week of economic and political news.

  • After weeks of political posturing and rancorous debate, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, increasing the debt ceilingPresident Obama signed the legislation on August 2, thereby avoiding a potential default by the U.S. government.
  • After the debt deal was done, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings announced they would retain their AAA rating of U.S. Treasuries but continue to monitor U.S. fiscal health.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended a 9-day losing streak with a blistering 334 point decline; wiping out all of the gains for 2011.
  • S&P capped the week by announcing their downgrade.

Since Friday afternoon, politicians, economists, and pundits have been discussing the impact of the downgrade.  There has also been a lot of pointing fingers of who is to blame for  tarnishing the image of the U.S.  It has also left a lot of people wondering about the real implications of a downgrade in the credit rating of the U.S. Government.

Here are a couple of things I think you can expect from the downgrade.

  • There is a bruising to the American pride and psyche.  Nothing has changed since Friday, but most Americans want to believe we are the best of the best.  The downgrade is likely to increase the uncertainty and pessimism of the American consumer.
  • Interest rates won’t change immediately.  Interest rates are effectively determined by the free markets, not by S&P.  A credit ratings agency simply tries to assess the risk of a particular security, but it’s up to the market to decide the interest rate.  Don’t expect interest rates to change in the near future, but there could be some upward pressure on rates if investors become more leery about the fiscal stability of the U.S. government.
  • The stock markets aren’t going to crash.  As anticipated, the markets were battered yesterday and lost about 5% of their value, but it’s not a direct correlation to the S&P ratings change.  Remember the Dow took a 334 point hit last week before S&P made its announcement.   Furthermore, the 10-year Treasury yield fell from Friday’s rate of 3.558%. This means investors bought more Treasuries; the very securities that are supposedly more risky.  The selloff is more attributable to the poor outlook of the global economy and European sovereign debt worries.  Investors are seeking stability, so they’re buying up Treasuries and gold.

There is one potential redeeming element which may come from the downgrade, but it’s far from certain.  This might serve as a wake-up call for our political leaders to get serious about the fiscal future of our country.  As I wrote last week, the debt deal was long on promises and short on spending cuts.  In my opinion, a 0.6% cut in spending for 2012 is a pittance in light of overall spending.  The rating downgrade could prompt our leaders to get serious about tackling the debt and deficit.

No longer is it just extreme fiscal conservatives who think it unrealistic for the U.S. government to overspend by $1 trillion each year without consequence.  Standard & Poor’s is a significant player in the global economy.  You may question the timing and motivation of their downgrade, but it should serve as a clarion call of the long-term risks and ramifications of our debt and deficit spending.  I can only hope our politicians are listening and have the courage to do something about it.

Controlling Oil Prices

President Obama announced yesterday that he was authorizing the release of 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) over the next 30 days.  The decision was made in coordination with our European allies who also will be releasing an equal amount.

Supply disruptions from the ongoing conflict in Libya were cited as the rationale for the release, but several industry analysts and commenters question this rationale.  The current stockpile of oil and gas hasn’t dramatically decreased since the Libyan conflict began, and most industry analysts believe there are adequate supplies, irrespective of what happens in Libya.  Although oil prices climbed dramatically at the beginning of the conflict, they have dropped nearly 10% over the past few weeks.

Many commentators suspect the real motivation is an attempt to drive potential speculators from the market.  If this was the intent, it seems to be working… at least for the moment.  Yesterday, the market price for oil dropped $5 per barrel, and gasoline futures dropped $0.14 per gallon.

Although we may all profit from lower fuel prices, the long-term cost of this decision may not be worth the short-term benefits.  The effects of this strategy may be short-lived.  By current estimates the world consumes nearly 89 million barrels of oil per day (the U.S. consumes 21 million barrels each day).  Thus, releasing 1-2 million barrels per day isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on long-term  supplies.

If hindering the profits of traders and speculators was a primary motivation, then it’s huge misappropriation of power.  The SPR was created to protect the country against a sudden disruption of oil supply, especially for the military.  Although the SPR has been tapped for non-military uses in the past, it was never intended to be a tool to control market prices.  It’s dangerous for politicians to use a strategic asset to achieve a political or economic result.

In my mind, such actions raise serious questions.

  • Where in the Constitution does the government have the power to manage the price of a particular asset or commodity?
  • Is the government now in the position of trying to make or break a market?
  • Who gets to decide when the price is too high or too low?
  • How does a national asset become a tool to manage a particular market?

I agree that government has a role to enforce free and fair trading practices.  If illegal and unethical trading occurred, then go after the culprits, or pass legislation if rules need to be  changed.  Absent illegal or immoral activities, the government doesn’t have a right to control the market because our political leaders don’t like the result of what is happening.   Government’s attempt to regulate and control market prices sounds a lot like socialism – not free enterprise.

We may never know for certain the true motivation for this decision, but the people who work and study this stuff full-time, have reasonable suspicions of the real intent behind the release of oil from the SPR.  If the chasing speculators out of the market was the primary motivation, it was a terrible decision.  The government’s attempt to artificially control prices never works out well in the end.  Furthermore, this type of foray into the free markets is a dangerous exercise/abuse of power.

Do we really want to be European?

Let me start by stating that I’m not anti-European.  I have European roots, European friends, and am fascinated with their rich history and heritage.  I really enjoy the cuisine, cobblestone streets, outdoor cafés and centuries-old buildings.  I also respect their current government and political structures, but I happen to disagree with some of their fundamental economic philosophies.

I often hear politicians and friends say that we should be like____ (insert name of European country).  It was one of the biggest arguments for passing Obamacare (i.e., we were the only major industrialized country without socialized medicine).  People seemed to forget who leads the development of new medical products, procedures and technology, but that is a separate matter.

I’ll admit, that there are days when I would enjoy a 35 hour work week, 4+ weeks of vacation (holiday) and a 13th month pay, but I know that it comes with a cost.

  • Gasoline and diesel prices are nearly double the U.S. pump prices
  • Accommodations are small and vehicles even smaller
  • High taxes
  • Complex and intrusive government regulations
  • High unemployment

Since the recession hit in 2008, the U.S. unemployment rate has been on par with the European Union.  However, the U.S. unemployment rate has historically been considerable lower than France, Germany, Italy and Spain.  The United Kingdom is the notable exception.   We may be contending with a 30-year high rate, but unemployment in France and Spain has barely dipped below 8% in the past five years.

As economic recovery has dragged along, the unemployment rate remains high, which has caused many economists to speculate that we may have reached a new level of “full  employment.” You can read this article for a greater discussion on the rationale for this speculation.

Time will tell if this is true, but there aren’t any indications that unemployment is going to dramatically decrease in the near future.  This may be an unintended consequence of our drive to be more European.  Concerns of higher taxes, more regulation and mandatory health coverage may be causing employers to refrain from expanding their workforce.  You may argue the merits of such structural changes, but it will definitely require a shift in the American psyche for us to accept 7-9% constant unemployment as normal.

I’m not advocating for the Europeans to change their social or economic structures.  It’s great if it works for them, but that doesn’t mean it is right for the U.S.  I also don’t believe that we have all of the good ideas.  We can definitely learn from our international brethren.  However, we must be careful in trying to reshape our economy and society to be like someone else.  Albeit different, every nation has its challenges and struggles.  There is no utopian society.

Consequently, we should ponder whether we really want to be like the Europeans or any other nation for that matter.  Embracing our differences doesn’t mean we have to stop celebrating what makes them or us great.

A Double Dip Recession

Many recent economic indicators are pointing to a slowing of the U.S. economy.  This has raised the speculation that we may be headed for a double dip recession.

The following  definitions will help us to speak the same language:

  • Recession – two successive quarters of negative economic growth as measured by GDP
  • Recovery – increase in economic activity and growth in GDP following a recession
  • Double Dip Recession – short period of recovery followed by another recession

As much as we may like steady economic growth, history has proven that the economy is cyclical.  There are periods of economic growth and decline.  There are also times of boom and bust.  While there have been several recessionary periods, the last double dip was thirty years ago when the economy slowed in late 1981 after rebounding from a recession in 1980.

The most recent recession may have officially ended in the summer of 2009 as GDP stopped declining, but that doesn’t mean that all has been well with the economy for the past two years.  Growth has been rather meager and sporadic, and there certainly hasn’t been any boom in economic growth to restore the trillions of dollars of wealth lost from 2007-2009.

Here are some of the recent economic statistics that make the current outlook a little bleak.

  • The unemployment rate bounced back up to 9.1% in May 2011
  • 54,000 new jobs were created in May, down from 232,000 in April
  • Retail sales dropped 0.2% in May 2011, the first decline since June 2010; auto sales were down 2.9% for the month
  • For the ninth straight week, over 400,000 people filed new claims for unemployment
  • Although oil prices have declined in recent weeks, gas is still approximately $1.00/gallon more than a year ago, and continued unrest in the Middle East and the upcoming  hurricane season in the U.S. could cause another spike
  • Higher fuel and commodity prices are causing significant inflation in food prices
  • Housing values continue to fall and an estimated 25% of all homeowners owe more on their home than its current market value
  • A $14 trillion national debt and $1.4 trillion annual budget deficit make it difficult for the U.S. government to spend money to help stimulate economic growth

Time will tell if we have a double dip recession or be able to avert it.  Irrespective of the economic terms of recession and recovery, the immediate economic outlook is not exceptional.  Things may not get much worse, but I don’t think things are going to change all that dramatically in the near future.

I believe there are three primary factors that will continue to hinder our growth.

  1. Unemployment – It’s hard to have strong economic growth when 10% of the population is out of work, and another 5-10% have either given up looking for work or are underemployed.
  2. Housing – Aside from the fact that housing has historically been a leading contributor to economic recovery, current market values put more people at risk for default and make it difficult for people to relocate.  Additionally, your house is often your largest asset, and it’s hard to have much confidence in the economy when you consider how much money you have lost and continue to lose on your investment.
  3. National Debt – The magnitude of the debt and annual deficits pose a substantial risk to the country and the economy.  The debt is manageable because interest rates are at historic lows.  A return to even moderately normal rates would place tremendous pressure on the Treasury and a rise in government interest rates will reverberate through the entire economy.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to any of these problems, and our political leaders have not demonstrated the ability or willingness to seriously tackle the issues.  Thus, I think the best we can hope for in the near term is an economy that sputters along with relatively stagnant growth overall.  The worst could be traumatic.

These are a few of my thoughts… what do you think?