Economic Outlook – July 2015

For my money, Janet Yellen’s speech July 10 – parts of which I quote below – is important.

Yellen says the Fed plans the first increase in interest rates this year – in September or December, given Fed meeting schedules.

I believe the fact that we have virtually zero interest rates, and have for some time, creates distortions in economic discussions, not to mention its bizarre effects on the real economy.

On the one hand, the US Federal Reserve must realize that if it does not raise interest rates in this phase of the business cycle, it may be a very long time before we get off the zero lower bound. This creates a tendency to “happy talk” from monetary officials, although not Ms. Yellen specifically, papering over weakness in the US and global economy.

On the other hand, I suspect there are now economic interests invested in continuation of low rates, and their contribution going forward may be to sound the alarm at the slightest sign of economic troubles.

And, truly, this expansion phase of the current business cycle is “growing long in the tooth.” It began, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, in summer 2009. This makes for 96 months from the previous trough of the business cycle to the current time. Only two previous US business expansions historically are longer than this, and only by one or two years.

The price of (economic) freedom is eternal vigilance. With that in mind, consider some of the datapoints on the current economic outlook.

United States

There is an extensive extract from Ms. Yellen’s speech, assessing US economic conditions, the latest report indicating retail sales softened, and the earlier May 2015 consensus forecast of the Survey of Professional Forecasters, indicating lower economic growth expectations.

Janet Yellen’s Speech at the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio

Let me turn now to where I think the economy is headed over the next several years. The latest estimates show that both real GDP and industrial production actually edged down in the first quarter of this year. Some of this weakness appears to be the result of factors that I expect will be only transitory, such as the unusually harsh winter weather in some regions of the country and the West Coast port labor dispute that briefly restrained international trade and caused disruptions in manufacturing supply chains. Also, statistical noise or measurement issues may have played some role. This is not the first time in recent years that real GDP has been reported to decline, or grow unusually slowly, in the first quarter of the year. There is a healthy debate among economists–many within the Federal Reserve System–about some of the technical factors that may lie behind this pattern.4 Nevertheless, at least a couple of other more persistent factors also likely weighed on economic output and industrial production in the first quarter. In particular, the higher foreign exchange value of the dollar that I mentioned, as well as weak growth in some foreign economies, has restrained the demand for U.S. exports. Moreover, lower crude oil prices have significantly depressed business investment in the domestic energy sector. Indeed, industrial production continued to decline somewhat in April and May. We expect the drag on domestic economic activity from these factors to ease over the course of this year, as the value of the dollar and crude oil prices stabilize, and I anticipate moderate economic growth, on balance, for this year as a whole. As always, however, the economic outlook is uncertain. Notably, although the economic recovery in the euro area appears to have gained a firmer footing, the situation in Greece remains unresolved.

JenetYellen

Looking further ahead, I think that many of the fundamental factors underlying U.S. economic activity are solid and should lead to some pickup in the pace of economic growth in the coming years. In particular, I anticipate that employment will continue to expand and the unemployment rate will decline further.

An improving job market should, in turn, help support a faster pace of household spending growth. Additional jobs and potentially faster wage growth bolster household incomes, and lower energy prices mean consumers have more money to spend on other goods and services. In addition, growing employment and wages should make consumers more comfortable in spending a greater portion of their incomes than they have been in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Moreover, increases in house values and stock market prices, along with reductions in debt in recent years, have pushed up households’ net worth, which also should support more spending. Finally, interest rates faced by borrowers remain low, reflecting the FOMC’s highly accommodative monetary policies. Indeed, recent encouraging data about retail sales and light motor vehicle purchases in the beginning of the second quarter could be an indication that the pace of consumer spending is picking up.

Another positive factor for the outlook is that the drag on economic growth in recent years from changes in federal fiscal policies appears to have waned. Temporary fiscal stimulus measures supported economic output during the recession and early in the recovery, but those stimulus measures have since expired, and additional policy actions were taken to reduce the federal budget deficit. By 2011, these changes in fiscal policies were holding back economic growth. However, the effects of those fiscal policy actions now seem to be mostly behind us.5

There are a couple of factors, however, that I expect could restrain economic growth. First, business owners and managers remain cautious and have not substantially increased their capital expenditures despite the solid fundamentals and brighter prospects for consumer spending. Businesses are holding large amounts of cash on their balance sheets, which may suggest that greater risk aversion is playing a role. Indeed, some economic analysis suggests that uncertainty about the strength of the recovery and about government economic policies could be contributing to the restraint in business investment.6

A second factor that could restrain economic growth regards housing. While national home prices have been rising for a few years and home sales have improved recently, residential construction has remained quite soft. Many households still find it difficult to obtain mortgage credit, but, more generally, the weak job market and slow wage gains in recent years appear to have induced people to double-up on housing. For example, many young adults continue to live with their parents. Population growth is creating a need for more housing, whether to rent or to own, and I do expect that continuing job and wage gains will encourage more people to form new households. Nevertheless, activity in the housing sector seems likely to improve only gradually.

Regarding inflation, as I mentioned earlier, the recent effects of lower prices for crude oil and for imports on overall inflation are expected to wane during this year. Combined with further tightening in labor and product markets, I expect inflation will move toward the FOMC’s 2 percent objective over the next few years. Importantly, a number of different surveys indicate that longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable even as recent readings on inflation have fallen. If inflation expectations had not remained stable, I would be more concerned because consumer and business expectations about inflation can become self-fulfilling.

From the New York Times – To my ears, most of Ms. Yellen’s speech expertly laid out why the economy is not ready for interest rate increases anytime soon. Then, toward the end, she said that based on her views, she expected to begin raising rates “at some point later this year.” That would mean a rate hike in three months, at the Fed’s next meeting in September, or six months hence at its December meeting.

ADVANCE MONTHLY SALES FOR RETAIL AND FOOD SERVICES

The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for June, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $442.0 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent (±0.5%)* from the previous month, but up 1.4 percent (±0.9%) above June 2014. Total sales for the April 2015 through June 2015 period were up 1.7 percent (±0.7%) from the same period a year ago. The April 2015 to May 2015 percent change was revised from +1.2 percent (±0.5%) to +1.0 percent (±0.3%).

Retail trade sales were down 0.3 percent (±0.5%)* from May 2015, but up 0.6 percent (±0.7%)* above last year. Food services and drinking places were up 7.7 percent (±3.3%) from June 2014 and sporting goods, hobby, books and music were up 6.6 percent (±1.9%) from last year. Gasoline stations were down 17.1% (±1.4%) from the previous year.

Second Quarter 2015 Survey of Professional Forecasters

(Release Date: May 15, 2015) Weaker Outlook for Growth

The outlook for growth in the U.S. economy over the next three years looks weaker now than it did in February, according to 44 forecasters surveyed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The forecasters predict real GDP will grow at an annual rate of 2.5 percent this quarter and 3.1 percent next quarter. On an annual-average over annual-average basis, real GDP will grow 2.4 percent in 2015, down 0.8 percentage point from the previous estimate. The forecasters predict real GDP will grow 2.8 percent each in 2016 and 2017, and 2.5 percent in 2018.

Global

Emerging markets made up some of the slack in the global economy after 2008-2009, but today are everywhere slowing, as the latest revision of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) World Economic Outlook indicates.

IMF July World Economic Outlook – Slower Growth in Emerging Markets, a Gradual Pickup in Advanced Economies

Global growth is projected at 3.3 percent in 2015, marginally lower than in 2014, with a gradual pickup in advanced economies and a slowdown in emerging market and developing economies. In 2016, growth is expected to strengthen to 3.8 percent.

  • A setback to activity in the first quarter of 2015, mostly in North America, has resulted in a small downward revision to global growth for 2015 relative to the April 2015 World Economic Outlook (WEO). Nevertheless, the underlying drivers for a gradual acceleration in economic activity in advanced economies—easy financial conditions, more neutral fiscal policy in the euro area, lower fuel prices, and improving confidence and labor market conditions—remain intact.
  • In emerging market economies, the continued growth slowdown reflects several factors, including lower commodity prices and tighter external financial conditions, structural bottlenecks, rebalancing in China, and economic distress related to geopolitical factors. A rebound in activity in a number of distressed economies is expected to result in a pickup in growth in 2016.
  • The distribution of risks to global economic activity is still tilted to the downside. Near-term risks include increased financial market volatility and disruptive asset price shifts, while lower potential output growth remains an important medium-term risk in both advanced and emerging market economies. Lower commodity prices also pose risks to the outlook in low-income developing economies after many years of strong growth.

Link to Blanchard video

China May Tip World Into Recession: Morgan Stanley

Also there is this interesting chart From Dr. Ed’s Blog

ChinaTrade

Impending Disaster In Greece

My take is that the harsh dealing with Greece led by, apparently, the Germans is more symbolic than directly material to global economic conditions. Nevertheless, it is an ugly symbol, representing, it seems, the end of dreamy thoughts about European integration and the onset of recognition of new German hegemony in Europe.

I am an admirer of modern Germany, having struggled to relearn enough German to read newspapers recently and ask for items in German bakeries. I see the German perspective, but I deeply regret its narrow scope. I think more conservative Germans are missing the big picture here. Of course, the plight of the Greeks is desperate and lamentable.

One final remark – forecasting comes to the fore at junctures such as these. Are we on the cusp, have we started to slide down, or is there still some upside? Compelling questions.

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