Tag Archives: Federal Reserve policies

The Interest Rate Conundrum

It’s time to invoke the parable of the fox and the hedgehog. You know – the hedgehog knows one thing, sees the world through the lens of a single commanding idea, while the fox knows many things, entertains diverse, even conflicting points of view.

This is apropos of my reaction to David Stockman’s The Fed’s Painted Itself Into The Most Dangerous Corner In History—–Why There Will Soon Be A Riot In The Casino.

Stockman, former Director of Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan who later launched into a volatile career in high finance (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Stockman) currently lends his name to and writes for a spicy website called Contra Corner.

Stockman’s “Why There Will Soon Be a Riot in The Casino” pivots on an Op Ed by Lawrence Summers (Preparing for the next recession) as well as the following somewhat incredible chart, apparently developed from IMF data by Contra Corner researchers.


The storyline is that planetary production fell in current dollar terms in 2015. This isn’t because physical output or hours in service dropped, but because of the precipitous drop in commodity prices and the general pattern of deflation.

All this is apropos of the Fed’s coming decision to raise the federal funds rate from the zero bound (really from about 0.25 percent).

The logic is unassailable. As Summers (former US Treasury Secretary, former President of Harvard, and Professor of Economics at Harvard) writes –

U.S. and international experience suggests that once a recovery is mature, the odds that it will end within two years are about half and that it will end in less than three years are over two-thirds. Because normal growth is now below 2 percent rather than near 3 percent, as has been the case historically, the risk may even be greater now. While the risk of recession may seem remote given recent growth, it bears emphasizing that since World War II, no postwar recession has been predicted a year in advance by the Fed, the White House or the consensus forecast.


Historical experience suggests that when recession comes it is necessary to cut interest rates by more than 300 basis points. I agree with the market that the Fed likely will not be able to raise rates by 100 basis points a year without threatening to undermine the recovery. But even if this were possible, the chances are very high that recession will come before there is room to cut rates by enough to offset it. The knowledge that this is the case must surely reduce confidence and inhibit demand.

So let me rephrase this, to underline the points.

  1. Every business recovery has a finite length
  2. The current business recovery has gone on longer than most and probably will end within two or three years
  3. The US Federal Reserve, therefore, has a limited time in which to restore the federal funds rate to something like its historically “normal” levels
  4. But this means a rapid acceleration of interest rates over the next two to three years, something which almost inevitably will speed the onset of a business downturn and which could have alarming global implications
  5. Thus, the Fed probably will not be able to restore the federal funds rate – actually the only rate they directly control – to historically normal values
  6. Therefore, Fed tools to combat the next recession will be severely constrained.
  7. Given these facts and suppositions, secondary speculative/financial and other responses can arise which themselves can become major developments to deal with.

Header pic of fox and hedgehog from willpowered.co.

Federal Reserve Plans to Raise Interest Rates

It is widely expected the US Federal Reserve Bank will raise the federal funds rate from its seven-year low below 0.25 percent to maybe 0.50 percent. Then, further increases will bring this key short term rate back in line with its historic profile gradually, depending on the health of the US economy and international factors.

This will probably occur next week at the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), December 15-16.

Here’s a chart from the excellent St. Louis Federal Reserve data site (FRED) showing how unusual recent years are in terms of this key interest rate.


Shading in the chart indicates periods of recession.

Thus, the federal funds rate – which is the rate charged on overnight loans to banking members of the Federal Reserve system – was pushed to the zero bound as a response to the financial crisis and recession 2008-2009.

A December increase has been discussed by prominent members of the Federal Open Market Committee and, of course, in Janet Yellen’s testimony before the US Congress, December 3.

Yet discussion still considers the balance between ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ on the FOMC. Next year, apparently, FOMC membership may shift toward more ‘hawks’ in voting positions – bankers who see inflation risks from the current recovery. See, for example, Richard Grossman’s Birdwatching at the Federal Reserve.

How far will interest rates rise? One way to address this is by considering the Fed funds futures contract. Currently, the CME futures data indicate a rise to 1.73% over the next 36 months.

All this seems long overdue, based on historical interest rate levels, but that does not stop some alarmist talk.

BIS Warns The Fed Rate Hike May Unleash The Biggest Dollar Margin Call In History

As a result, our only question for the upcoming Fed rate hike is how long it will take before the Fed, shortly after increasing rates by a modest 25 bps to “prove” to itself if not so much anyone else that the US economy is fine, will be forced to mainline trillions of dollars around the globe via swap lines for the second time in a row as the world experiences the biggest USD margin call in history.

By the end of next week or probably just after the first of 2016, interest rates may move a little from the zero bound, and from then on, one fulcrum of all business and economic forecasts will be the pace of further increases.

The End of Quantitative Easing, the Expansion of QE

The US Federal Reserve Bank declared an end to its quantitative easing (QE) program at the end of October.

QE involves direct Fed intervention into buying longer term bonds with an eye to exercising leverage on long term interest rates and, thus, encouraging investment. Readers wanting more detail on how QE is implemented – check Ed Dolan’s slide show Quantitative Easing and the Fed 2008-2014: A Tutorial

The New York Times article on the Fed actions – Quantitative Easing Is Ending. Here’s What It Did, in Charts – had at least two charts that are must-see’s.

First, the ballooning of the Federal Reserve Balance sheet from less than $1 trillion to $4.5 trillion today –


Secondly, according to Times estimates, about 40 percent of Fed assets are comprised of mortgage-backed securities now – making the Fed a potential major player in the US housing markets.


Several recent articles offer interpretation – what does the end of this five-year long program mean for the US economy and for investors. What were the impacts of QE?

I thought Jeff Miller’s “Old Prof” compendium was especially good – Weighing the Week Ahead: What the End of QE Means for the Individual Investor. If you click this link and find a post more recent than November 1, scroll down for the QE discussion. Basically, Miller thinks the impact on investors will be minimal.

This is also true in the Business Week article The Hawaiian Tropic Effect: Why the Fed’s Quantitative Easing Isn’t Over

But quantitative easing is the gift that keeps on giving. Even after the purchases end, its effects will persist. How could that be? The Fed will still own all those bonds it bought, and according to the agency itself, it’s the level of its holdings that affects the bond market, not the rate of addition to those holdings. Having reduced the supply of bonds available on the market, the Fed has raised their price. Yields (i.e. market interest rates) go down when prices go up. So the effect of quantitative easing is to lower interest rates for things Americans actually care about, such as 30-year fixed-rate mortgages.

Some other articles which attempt to tease out exactly what impacts QE did have on the economy –

Evaluation of quantitative easing QE had “some effects” but it’s one of several influences on the bond market and long term interest rates.

Quantitative easing: giving cash to the public would have been more effective

QE has also had unforeseen side-effects. The policy involved allowing banks and other financial institutions to exchange bonds for cash, and the hope was that this would lead to improved flows of credit to firms looking to expand. In reality, it encouraged financial speculation in property, shares and commodities. The bankers and the hedge fund owners did well out of QE, but the side-effect of footloose money searching the globe for high yields was higher food and fuel prices. High inflation and minimal wage growth led to falling real incomes and a slower recovery.

What Quantitative Easing Did Not Do: Three Revealing Charts – good discussion organized around the following three points –

  1. QE did not work according to the textbook model
  2. QE did not cause inflation
  3. QE was not powerful enough to overcome fiscal restraint

Expansion of QE

But quantitative easing as a central bank policy is by no means a dead letter.

In fact, at the very moment the US Federal Reserve announced the end of its five-year long program of bond-buying, the Bank of Japan (BOPJ) announced a significant expansion of its QE, as noted in this article from Forbes.

Last week, as the Federal Reserve officially announced the end of its long-term asset purchase program (commonly known as QE3), the Bank of Japan significantly ratcheted up its own quantitative easing program, in a surprising 5-4 split decision. Starting next year, the Bank of Japan will increase its balance sheet by 15 percent of GDP per annum and will extend the average duration of its bond purchases from 7 years to 10 years. The big move by Japan’s central bank comes amid the country’s GDP declining by 7.1% in the second quarter of 2014 (on an annualized basis) from the previous quarter following the increase of the VAT sales tax from 5% to 8% in Japan earlier this year and worries that Japan could fall into another deflationary spiral..

The scale of the Japanese effort is truly staggering, as this chart from the Forbes article illustrates.


The Economist article on this development Every man for himself tries to work out the implications of the Japanese action on the value of the yen, Japanese inflation/deflation, the Japanese international trade position, impact on competitors (China), and impacts on the US dollar.

What about Europe? Well, Bloomberg offers this primer – Europe’s QE Quandary. Short take – there are 18 nations which have to agree and move together, Germany’s support being decisive. But deflation appears to be spreading in Europe, so many expect something to be done along QE lines.

If you are forecasting for businesses, government agencies, or investors, these developments by central banks around the world are critically important. Their effects may be subtle and largely in unintended consequences, but the scale of operations means you simply have to keep track.

Negative Nominal Interest Rates – the European Central Bank Experiment

Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary and, earlier, President of Harvard delivered a curious speech at an IMF Economic Forum last year. After nice words about Stanley Fischer, currently Vice Chair of the Fed, Summers entertains the notion of negative interest rates to combat secular stagnation and restore balance between aggregate demand and supply at something like full employment.

Fast forward to June 2014, when the European Central Bank (ECB) pushes the interest rate on deposits European banks hold in the ECB into negative territory. And on September 4, the ECB drops the deposit rates further to -0.2 percent, also reducing a refinancing rate to virtually zero.


The ECB discusses this on its website – Why Has the ECB Introduced a Negative interest Rate. After highlighting the ECB mandate to ensure price stability by aiming for an inflation rate of below but close to 2% over the medium term, the website observes euro area inflation is expected to remain considerably below 2% for a prolonged period.

This provides a rationale for lower interest rates, of which there are principally three under ECB control – a marginal lending facility for overnight lending to banks, the main refinancing operations and the deposit facility.

Note that the main refinancing rate is the rate at which banks can regularly borrow from the ECB while the deposit rate is the rate banks receive for funds parked at the central bank.

The ECB is adjusting interest rates under their control across the board, as suggested by the chart, but worries that to maintain a functioning money market in which commercial banks lend to each other, these rates cannot be too close to each other.

So, bottom line, the deposit rate was lowered to − 0.10 % in June to maintain this corridor, and then further as the refinancing rate was dropped to -.05 percent.

The hope is that lower refinancing rates will mean lower rates for customers for bank loans, while negative deposit rates will act as a disincentive for banks to simply park excess reserves in the ECB.

Nominal Versus Real Interest Rates and Bond Yields

If you want to prep for, say, negative yields on two year Irish bonds, or issuance of various European bonds with negative yield, as well as the negative yields of a variety of US securities in recent years, after inflation, check out How Low Can You Go? Negative Interest Rates and Investors’ Flight to Safety.

An asset can generate a negative yield, on a conventional, rather than catastrophic basis, in a nominal or real, which is to say, inflation-adjusted, sense.

Some examples of negative real interest rates of yields –

The yield to maturity on the 5-year Treasury note has been below 2 percent since July 2010, and the yield to maturity on the 10-year Treasury note has been below 2 percent since May 2012. Yet, looking forward, the Federal Open Market Committee in January 2012 announced an inflation target of 2 percent—implying an anticipated negative real yield over the life of the securities. Investors, facing uncertainty, appear willing to pay the U.S. government—when measured in real, ex post inflation-adjusted dollars—for the privilege of owning Treasury securities.

And the current government bond yield situation, from Bloomberg, shows important instances of negative yields, notably Germany and Japan – two of the largest global economies. Click to enlarge.


Where the ECB Goes From Here

Mario Draghi, ECB head, gave a speech clearly stating monetary policy is not enough, at the recent Jackson Hole conference of central bankers. After this, the financial press was abuzz with the idea Draghi is moving toward the Japanese leader Abe’s formulation in which there are three weapons or arrows in the Japanese formulation– monetary policy, fiscal policy and structural reforms.

The problem, in the case of the Eurozone, is achieving political consensus for fiscal policies such as backing bonds for badly needed infrastructure development. German opposition seems to be sustained and powerful.

Because of the “political economy” factors , currency and banking problems in the Eurozone are probably more complicated and puzzling than many business executives and managers, looking for a take on the situation, would prefer.

A Thought Experiment

Before diving into this conceptually hazardous topic, though, I’d like to pose a puzzle for readers.

Can banks realistically “charge” negative interest rates to commercial customers?

I seem to have cooked up a spreadsheet where such loans could pay a rate of positive real return to banks, if the rate of deflation can be projected.  In one variant, the bank collects a lending fee at the outset and then the interest rate for installments is negative.

The “save” for banks is that future deflation could inflate the real value of declining nominal installment payments, creating a present value of this stream of payments which is greater than the simple sum of such payments.

I’m not ready for primetime television with this, but it seems such a world encapsulates a very dour view of the future – one that may not be too far from the actual situation in Europe and Japan.

Money black hole at top from Conservative Read

Links – late August 2014

Economics Articles, Some Theoretical, Some Applied

Who’s afraid of inflation? Not Fed Chair Janet Yellen At Jackson Hole, Yellen speech on labor market conditions states that 2 percent inflation is not a hard ceiling for the Fed.

Economist’s View notes a new paper which argues that deflation is simply unnecessary, because the conditions for a “helicopter drop” of money (Milton Friedman’s metaphor) are widely met.

Three conditions must be satisfied for helicopter money always to boost aggregate demand. First, there must be benefits from holding fiat base money other than its pecuniary rate of return. Second, fiat base money is irredeemable – viewed as an asset by the holder but not as a liability by the issuer. Third, the price of money is positive. Given these three conditions, there always exists – even in a permanent liquidity trap – a combined monetary and fiscal policy action that boosts private demand – in principle without limit. Deflation, ‘lowflation’ and secular stagnation are therefore unnecessary. They are policy choices.

Stiglitz: Austerity ‘Dismal Failure,’ New Approach Needed

US housing market loses momentum

Fannie Mae economists have downgraded their expectations for the U.S. housing market in the second half of this year, even though they are more optimistic about the prospects for overall economic growth.

How Detroit’s Water Crisis Is Part Of A Much Bigger Problem

“Have we truly become a society to where we’ll go and build wells and stuff in third world countries but we’ll say to hell with our own right here up under our nose, our next door neighbors, the children that our children play with?”

Economic harassment and the Ferguson crisis

According to .. [ArchCity Defenders] recent report .. the Ferguson court is a “chronic offender” in legal and economic harassment of its residents….. the municipality collects some $2.6 million a year in fines and court fees, typically from small-scale infractions like traffic violations…the second-largest source of income for that small, fiscally-strapped municipality….

And racial profiling appears to be the rule. In Ferguson, “86% of vehicle stops involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67% of the population,” the report states. “After being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 7.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested.” But those searches result in the discovery of contraband at a much lower rate than searches of whites.

Once the process begins, the system begins to resemble the no-exit debtors’ prisons of yore. “Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members….

“By disproportionately stopping, charging, and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution.” And they increase suspicion and disrespect for the system.

… the Ferguson court processed the equivalent of three warrants and $312 in fines per household in 2013.


Astronauts find living organisms clinging to the International Space Station, and aren’t sure how they got there


A Mathematical Proof That The Universe Could Have Formed Spontaneously From Nothing

What caused the Big Bang itself? For many years, cosmologists have relied on the idea that the universe formed spontaneously, that the Big Bang was the result of quantum fluctuations in which the Universe came into existence from nothing.


Big Data Trends In 2014 (infographic – click to enlarge)


Calling the Next Recession – The Need for New Policy Responses

Yesterday I saw a headline on Reuters,

U.S. retail sales pause, seen rebounding in months ahead

with a story that made the best out of a recent stall in US consumer spending, especially for cars.

I also noticed –

Japan’s Economy Contracts Sharply

Real gross domestic product, the total value of all goods and services produced in the economy, shrank 6.8% in the three months through June on an annualized basis from the prior quarter

In Europe, the economic tea leaves suggest a developing recession in Italy, negative growth in Germany, and stasis in France, as highlighted in this Wall Street Journal graphic.


Mish Shedlock, furthermore, is all over the bizarre new data coming out of China on bank loans in the standard and shadow banking systems.

New Yuan Loans and Shadow Banking Collapse in China; Record Bank Deposit Slump

All this after the 1st Quarter surprise drop in US real GDP of -2.7 percent, quarter-over-quarter.

A Note on How I Forecast the Global Economy

So my experience is with enterprise level IT companies with markets in the major global economic regions – Europe, Japan, China, the US and the ROW (rest of the world).

The idea is to keep tabs on regional developments to predict sales and, in some respects, to mix and match resources to the most promising markets.

After you do this for a while, it’s obvious there are interdependencies between these markets, in particular trade interdependencies.

Europe provides a large market for Chinese products – a market which has flagged in recent years with prolonged economic troubles in peripheral EU zone areas. The United States also provides China important markets for its goods.

Japan, as one of the largest economies in the world, is in the mix here too.

Bottom line – if all the major global economic regions (except South America?) are flagging, a synchronized global recession is increasingly likely.

What the Problem Is

This is sort of a “plain-vanilla” forecast, and might be fine-tuned with quantitative models – although none of these is especially accurate on a global scale.

But the deeper issue and problem has to do with the US Federal Reserve and many other central banks. And the failure to follow standard fiscal policy measures during the last economic downturn.

A new recession in the United States in 2014 or 2015 would find the US Federal Reserve Bank with no policy tools. The federal funds rate, the overnight rate directly controlled by the Fed, currently is virtually zero. The bond-buying program known as “quantitative easing (QE)” is scheduled to end in October, which means it is still running. The Fed balance sheet already includes more than $4 trillion in liabilities, more than 75 percent of which were incurred fighting the last recession.

That leaves fiscal policy as the only real response to a new recession.

However, the prospects for Congress to step up to the bat in the next two years do not look good.

Barry Ritholtz highlights the problem with Congress in a recent Bloomberg column – Naming the Biggest Losers in America.

The drag from federal government usually is a simple and obvious fix. During a recession and recovery, spending should rise and the Fed should make credit less expensive.

Except in this cycle. Before you start telling me about beliefs and ideology and the deficit, all one needs to do is compare federal spending during the 2001 recession cycle, with a Republican controlling the White House and a split Congress, to the present cycle. Apparently, the importance of reducing deficits and having a smaller government only applies when the GOP doesn’t control the White House.

Look also at state and local government, another huge drag on the economy. Block grants to the states could have helped to pay for police, emergency workers, teachers, road and bridge maintenance as they have in past recessions. But they weren’t, for partisan political reasons. The nation is worse off for it.

Business equipment investment and other forms of capital expenditures have been jump started with an accelerated depreciation tax allowances in past recessions. For some reason, this was allowed to lapse in 2013. This wasn’t very smart; if anything, they should have been extended and made more aggressive.

The biggest drag of all has been the persistent weakness in residential real estate. The recent increases in home prices are the result of record-low mortgage rates and limited inventory, not an economic recovery. As we noted in “The Best Housing Program You’ve Never Heard Of,” there were some attempts to ameliorate this, but they amounted to too little too late.

The bottom line is that as a nation, and mainly because of Congress, we haven’t risen to the challenges we face. There has been little intelligence, no creativity, negligible cooperation, and an epic failure of civic responsibility.



All this highlights for me that we need to face facts on US Federal Reserve policy, which currently is stuck at the zero lower bound for the federal funds rate and is still buying long term bonds.

The next recession is likely to hit before the Fed “normalizes” interest rates and its QE programs.

Also, the character of the US Congress is unlikely to convert en masse to Keynesian economics in the next two years.

This means, in turn, that unorthodox measures to stimulate the US and global economy will be necessary.

What are they?

The Next Recession – Will It Be A Global Meltdown?

One my focuses is the global economy and any cracks in the firmament which might presage the next recession. I rely a lot on my Twitter account to keep me on the crest of the wave, in this regard.

I’m really concerned, as are many of my colleagues and contacts in business and government.

We’ve hardly escaped the effects of last recession 2008-2009. Those are US dates, of course, set by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) the official recession “dater” in this country.

There have been a series of rolling impacts and consequences of this so-called “Great Recession.”


Housing or real estate bubbles were present in Europe, too, particularly in Spain and Ireland. Then, there was the problem of the Greek economy and state, which did not support the level of public debt that had been garnered by, in some cases, corrupt public officials. And European problems were complicated by the currency union of the euro in a context where there is not, as yet, a centralized EU state. Anyway, not to reprise the whole matter blow-by-blow, but most of Europe, with the exception of Germany, plunged into recession and struggled with austerity policies that made things worse for Main Street or, as they like to say in Britain, “High Street.”

Many European countries are just now coming out of recession, and overall, the growth rate in the EU area is almost indistinguishable from zero.

So another recession in the next one to two years would really set them back.


Part of the problem China has been experiencing is related to the persisting downturn in most of Europe, since Europe is a big trading partner. And so, for that matter is the United States, which bought less from China during the recession years.

But another problem is that China now is experiencing a mojo big property bubble of its own.

Newly wealthy Chinese do not really have any place to put their money, except real estate. The Chinese, like the Japanese, are big savers, and for many middle class families, buying the second apartment or even a house is an investment for the future. Yet Chinese real estate prices have skyrocketed, leaving the average Chinese wage earner in the dust, with less and less hope of ever owning a residence.

Apparently, in connection with this real estate speculation, a large shadow banking system has emerged. Some estimates circulate on Twitter suggesting this rivals the size of the official Chinese banking system.

Can “market socialism” or “market Leninism” experience a financial crisis, based on too many debts that cannot be paid?

I’ve been to China a few times, and done some business there – all the while trying to understand how things are set up. My feeling is that one should not impute banking practices that seem pro forma in, say, Great Britain or the US, to the Chinese. I think they are much more ready to “break the rules” in order to keep the party going (which is sort of a pun).

Having said that, I do think a Chinese crisis could develop if property values collapse, as they are wont to do in bubble mode.

Again, it’s hard to say how this might play out, since the victims and suffering would be among the nouveau riche of China, of whom there are millions, and many more average families who have invested their nest egg in a hot property.

But I can’t think that collapse of real estate values in modern China would not have worldwide repurcussions.

The Rest of the World

Regrettably, I cannot go through other major regions, one-by-one, but I’d have to say that things are not so good. The BRIC’s as a group all have more problems than a few years back, when they were hailed as the bright new centers of economic growth by that Goldman Sachs analyst. That’s Brazil, Russia, India, and China, of course.

Possibilities of Increased Conflict

There is a kind of axiom of geopolitics and social interaction that when the pie is growing and everybody can get more, even though their slice may not have been very big to begin with, there is a tendency for people to make do, go about their business and so forth. Reverse this and you have the concept that shrinking the pie – as austerity policies and the Great Recession have done – tends to increase levels of conflict. At first, to the extent that people have the idea that “we are all in this together” there may be increased cooperation. But that is not the current situation in almost any society. Quite the contrary, as Piketty and the Occupy Movement highlight, there is growing awareness of inequality of wealth and income.

There are armed conflicts in Syria, the Ukraine, Afghanistan (resurgent Taliban), and areas and regions in Africa. The Indian elections recently installed a Hindu nationalist who hopefully will be a reformer, but may, if the going gets tough, revert or acquiesce to more conflict with Pakistan and with non-Hindu populations within India. Pakistan, one of the world’s nuclear powers, appears to be extremely unstable politically. There are deep civil divisions in Thailand between city and rural areas that parallel class divisions. China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea.

And we may be moving from an era of US-centric global capitalism to a time when the Eurasian supercontinent will become significantly more important and perhaps decoupled from Wall Street and the City of London. Already, there are threats to dollar supremacy, and, historically, as US economic power is eclipsed by the more rapidly growing economies of Asia, some adjustment seems predictable.

In all this, Hollywood can be counted on to roll out some really corking new international intrigue films, perhaps (although I doubt it) with more complex plots.

The Situation with the US Federal Reserve Bank

The point of this international survey and reprise of recent business history is to highlight areas where surprises may originate, shaking the markets, and perhaps triggering the next recession.

But the most likely suspect is the US Federal Reserve Bank.

Two graphs speak volumes.



Seeking to encourage economic recovery, the US Federal Reserve dropped the federal funds rate to a number effectively almost zero – a historically low number. This zero bound federal funds rate has persisted since the end of 2009, or for about five years.

The Fed also has engaged in new policies, whereby it goes into private bond markets and buys long term bonds – primarily mortgage-backed securities. The second chart tracks this inasmuch as a good portion of the more than 4 trillion in Fed assets (for which there are corresponding liabilities, of course) are these mortgage-backed securities. In effect, the Fed has purchased a sizeable portion of the US housing market – one might say “nationalize” except that would be forgetting the fact that the Fed is actually a private institution whose governance is appointed by the Executive Branch of the US government.

In any case, this bond-buying is the famous “quantitative easing” (QE) and is mirrored in the accumulation of excess reserves by the banking system. Generally, that is, banks and financial institutions issue mortgages, sell them among themselves to be packaged in mortgage-backed securities, and the Fed has been buying these.

Banks can easily loan these excess reserves, but they consistently have not. Why is an interesting question beyond the scope of this discussion, but the consequence is that the Fed’s actions are “firewalled” from increasing the rate of inflation, which is what ordinarily you might think would occur given that various metrics of money supply also have surged upward.

Now “Fed-watching” is its own little cottage industry among financial commentators, and I am not going to second-guess the media here. The Fed has announced a plan to “taper” these purchases of long term bonds. This is likely to increase the mortgage rates and, probably to some extent, based on expectations already has.

So, the long and the short of it are that this set of policies – zero federal funds rate and bond buying cannot go on forever.

If economic growth has been low-grade since 2010 with these low interest rates, what is the reasonable outlook for a higher interest rate regime?

Timing of the Next Recession

When is the most likely time for a recession, for example? Would it be later in 2014, in 2015, or thereafter, maybe in 2016.

Here is a table of all the recessions in the US since the middle 1850’s along with facts about their duration (source: NBER).


Without even considering averages, the maximum period of trough to trough – that is, from the bottom of one recession to the bottom of the next – has been 128 months or ten years and eight months. Here, incidentally, the month numbers begin January 1800, for what that’s worth.

Thus, at the outside, based on these empirics, the trough of the next recession is likely to occur no later than early 2020.

Note that we have already blown through the average length from trough to trough of about 58.4 months or about five years from June 2009.

On a simple probabilistic basis, therefore, we are moving into the tail of the distribution of business cycle durations, suggesting that the chances of a downturn are in some sense already above 50 percent.

And note that the experience of the current business recovery is nothing like this historically maximum span in the 1990’s between the trough of the recession of 1990-1991 and the trough of November 2001.

This business recovery persistently seems to move ahead just above or, in the last quarter of 2013, below “stall speed.”

Seemingly, a fairly minor perturbation could set off a chain reaction, given the advanced frothiness in the stock market and softness in housing prices.

More of the Same, Worse

Neil Baroifsky was special inspector with oversight authority for the TARP during the bailout phase of the Great Recession, and currently is a partner in the Litigation Department of national law firm Jenner & Block LLP.

He’s also an author and often is called on for his opinion about developments in malfeasance writ large among the finance giants – such as the Credit Suisse settlement. In connection with a recent NPR interview, Barofsky said,

Although it is good that we averted a catastrophe back in 2008, the way that we did so I believe has unfortunately set the stage for an even more devastating financial crisis in the future.

HOBSON: In the future? How far?

BAROFSKY: Well, if I knew that, Michael Lewis would be writing his next book about people who made billions on timing the markets perfectly about me, which would be great.


BAROFSKY: But if you look, a lot of the same broken incentives from 2008 are still there. It’s just a question of when, not if. You can’t look at the fundamental broken incentives in the financial system and really come to a conclusion other than that we’re headed down the same dangerous path that we were that culminated in the explosion of ’08.

Barofsky’s point is readily supported by facts, such as –

The US and global financial system is even more concentrated today than in 2007, making “too big to fail”and even bigger potential problem now, than before the Great Recession. Even Alan Greenspan has taken note.

And the “pass the buck” system, whereby bond rating agencies are paid by the originators to evaluate exotic securities (“financial innovations”) created by the banking and shadow banking industries, securities which are then passed on to pension funds and hapless investors – this system appears to still be completely in place. Talk about the concept of “moral hazard.”

Global Impact

I think you get the picture.

For one reason or another, some fairly minor event is likely to set off a cascade of consequences in US and global financial markets, leading to the next recession. Probably, within one, two, or three years, as a matter of fact. Because the US Fed, and, for that matter, other central banks will still be working their way out of the last recession, there may be fewer “policy tools” to halt the stampede to sell, cutback, and so forth. Governments could respond with aggressive fiscal policy, but that option appears limited unless there are major changes in the political climate in the US and Europe.

Personally, I think wholly new directions of policy should be contemplated at the personal, local, regional, and of course at national levels.

We need to create what I have started to call “islands of stability.” This is the old idea of local self-reliance, but in new packaging. I really think there should be discussions widely across the US at least about how to decouple from the global economy and, indeed, from the financial concentrations on Wall Street. As a matter of self-preservation, until such time as more courageous national policies can be undertaken to reign in such obvious risks.

Links May 2014

If there is a theme for this current Links page, it’s that trends spotted a while ago are maturing, becoming clearer.

So with the perennial topic of Big Data and predictive analytics, there is an excellent discussion in Algorithms Beat Intuition – the Evidence is Everywhere. There is no question – the machines are going to take over; it’s only a matter of time.

And, as far as freaky, far-out science, how about Scientists Create First Living Organism With ‘Artificial’ DNA.

Then there are China trends. Workers in China are better paid, have higher skills, and they are starting to use the strike. Striking Chinese Workers Are Headache for Nike, IBM, Secret Weapon for Beijing . This is a long way from the poor peasant women from rural areas living in dormitories, doing anything for five or ten dollars a day.

The Chinese dominance in the economic sphere continues, too, as noted by the Economist. Crowning the dragon – China will become the world’s largest economy by the end of the year


But there is the issue of the Chinese property bubble. China’s Property Bubble Has Already Popped, Report Says


Then, there are issues and trends of high importance surrounding the US Federal Reserve Bank. And I can think of nothing more important and noteworthy, than Alan Blinder’s recent comments.

Former Fed Leader Alan Blinder Sees Market-rattling Infighting at Central Bank

“The Fed may get more raucous about what to do next as tapering draws to a close,” Alan Blinder, a banking industry consultant and economics professor at Princeton University said in a speech to the Investment Management Consultants Association in Boston.

The cacophony is likely to “rattle the markets” beginning in late summer as traders debate how precipitously the Fed will turn from reducing its purchases of U.S. government debt and mortgage securities to actively selling it.

The Open Market Committee will announce its strategy in October or December, he said, but traders will begin focusing earlier on what will happen with rates as some members of the rate-setting panel begin openly contradicting Fed Chair Janet Yellen, he said.

Then, there are some other assorted links with good infographics, charts, or salient discussion.

Alibaba IPO Filing Indicates Yahoo Undervalued Heck of an interesting issue.


Twitter Is Here To Stay

Three Charts on Secular Stagnation Krugman toying with secular stagnation hypothesis.

Rethinking Property in the Digital Era Personal data should be viewed as property

Larry Summers Goes to Sleep After Introducing Piketty at Harvard Great pic. But I have to have sympathy for Summers, having attended my share of sleep-inducing presentations on important economics issues.


Turkey’s Institutions Problem from the Stockholm School of Economics, nice infographics, visual aids. Should go along with your note cards on an important emerging economy.

Post-Crash economics clashes with ‘econ tribe’ – economics students in England are proposing reform of the university economics course of study, but, as this link points out, this is an uphill battle and has been suggested before.

The Life of a Bond – everybody needs to know what is in this infographic.

Very Cool Video of Ocean Currents From NASA


US Growth Stalls

The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announced today that,

Real gross domestic product — the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States — increased at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the first quarter (that is, from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014), according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 2.6 percent.

This flatline growth number is in stark contrast to the median forecast of 83 economists surveyed by Bloomberg, which called for a 1.2 percent increase for the first quarter.

Bloomberg writes in a confusingly titled report – Dow Hits Record as Fed Trims Stimulus as Economy Improves

The pullback in growth came as snow blanketed much of the eastern half of the country, keeping shoppers from stores, preventing builders from breaking ground and raising costs for companies including United Parcel Service Inc. Another report today showing a surge in regional manufacturing this month adds to data on retail sales, production and employment that signal a rebound is under way as temperatures warm.

Here’s is the BEA table of real GDP, along with the advanced estimates for the first quarter 2014 (click to enlarge).


The large negative slump in investment in equipment (-5.5) indicates to me something more is going on than bad weather.

Indeed, Econbrowser notes that,

Both business fixed investment and new home construction fell in the quarter, which would be ominous developments if they’re repeated through the rest of this year. And a big drop in exports reminds us that America is not immune to weakness elsewhere in the world.

Even the 2% growth in consumption spending is not all that encouraging. As Bricklin Dwyer of BNP Paribas noted, 1.1% of that consumption growth– more than half– was attributed to higher household expenditures on health care.

What May Be Happening

I think there is some amount of “happy talk” about the US economy linked to the urgency about reducing Fed bond purchases. So just think of what might happen if the federal funds rate is still at the zero bound when another recession hits. What tools would the Fed have left? Somehow the Fed has to position itself rather quickly for the inevitable swing of the business cycle.

I have wondered, therefore, whether some of the pronouncements recently from the Fed did not have a unrealistic slant.

So, as the Fed unwinds quantitative easing (QE), dropping bond (mortgage-backed securities) purchases to zero, surely there will be further impacts on the housing markets.

Also, China is not there this time to take up the slack.

And it is always good to remember that new employment numbers are basically a lagging indicator of the business cycle.

Let’s hope for a better second and third quarter, and that this flatline growth for the first quarter is a blip.

Links – 2014, Early January

US and Global Economy

Bernanke sees headwinds fading as US poised for growth – happy talk about how good things are going to be as quantitative easing is “tapered.”

Slow Growth and Short Tails But Dr. Doom (Nouriel Roubini) is guardedly optimistic about 2014

The good news is that economic performance will pick up modestly in both advanced economies and emerging markets. The advanced economies, benefiting from a half-decade of painful private-sector deleveraging (households, banks, and non-financial firms), a smaller fiscal drag (with the exception of Japan), and maintenance of accommodative monetary policies, will grow at an annual pace closer to 1.9%. Moreover, so-called tail risks (low-probability, high-impact shocks) will be less salient in 2014. The threat, for example, of a eurozone implosion, another government shutdown or debt-ceiling fight in the United States, a hard landing in China, or a war between Israel and Iran over nuclear proliferation, will be far more subdued.

GOLDMAN: Here’s What Will Happen With GDP, Housing, The Fed, And Unemployment Next year Goldman Sachs chief economist Jan Hatzius writes: 10 Questions for 2014  – Jan Hatzius is very bullish on 2014!

Three big macro questions for 2014 Gavyn Davies – tapering QE, China, and the euro. Requires free registration to read.

The State of the Euro, In One Graph From Paul Krugman, the point being that the EU’s austerity policies have significantly worsened the debt ratios of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Italy, despite lower interest rates. (Click to enlarge)



JCal’s 2014 predictions: Intense competition for YouTube and a shake up in online video economics

Rumblings in the YouTube community in the midst of tremendous growth in video productions – interesting.

Do disruptive technologies really overturn market leadership?

Discusses tests of the idea that ..such technologies have the characteristic that they perform worse on an important metric (or metrics) than current market leading technologies. Of course, if that were it, then the technologies could hardly be called disruptive and would be confined, at best, to niche uses.

The second critical property of such technologies is that while they start behind on key metrics, they improve relatively rapidly and eventually come to outperform existing technologies on many metrics. It is there that disruptive technologies have their bite. Initially, they are poor performers and established firms would not want to integrate them into their products as they would disappoint their customers who happen to be most of the current market. However, when performance improves, the current technologies are displaced and established firms want to get in on the game. The problem is that they may be too late. In other words, Christensen’s prediction was that established firms would have legitimate “blind spots” with regard to disruptive technologies leaving room open for new entrants to come in, adopt those technologies and, ultimately, displace the established firms as market leaders.

Big Data – A Big Opportunity for Telecom Players

Today with sharp increase in online and mobile shopping with use of Apps, telecom companies have access to consumer buying behaviours and preference which are actually being used with real time geo-location and social network analysis to target consumers. Hmmm.

5 Reasons Why Big Data Will Crush Big Research

Traditional marketing research or “big research” focuses disproportionately on data collection.  This mentality is a hold-over from the industry’s early post-WWII boom –when data was legitimately scarce.  But times have changed dramatically since Sputnik went into orbit and the Ford Fairlane was the No. 1-selling car in America.

Here is why big data is going to win.

Reason 1: Big research is just too small…Reason 2 : Big research lacks relevance… Reason 3: Big research doesn’t handle complexity well… Reason 4: Big research’s skill sets are outdated…  Reason 5: Big research lacks the will to change…

I know “market researchers” who fit the profile in this Forbes article, and who are more or less lost in the face of the new extent of data and techniques for its analysis. On the other hand, I hear from the grapevine that many executives and managers can’t really see what the Big Data guys in their company are doing. There are success stories on the Internet (see the previous post here, for example), but this may be best case. Worst case is a company splurges on the hardware to implement Big Data analytics, and the team just comes up with gibberish – very hard to understand relationships with no apparent business value.

Some 2013 Recaps

Top Scientific Discoveries of 2013

Humankind goes interstellar ..Genome editing ..Billions and billions of Earths


Global warming: a cause for the pause ..See-through brains ..Intergalactic Neutrinos ..A new meat-eating mammal


Pesticide controversy grows ..Making organs from stem cells ..Implantable electronics ..Dark matter shows up — or doesn’t ..Fears of the fathers

The 13 Most Important Charts of 2013


And finally, a miscellaneous item. Hedge funds apparently do beat the market, or at least companies operating in the tail of the performance distribution show distinctive characteristics.

How do Hedge Fund “Stars” Create Value? Evidence from Their Daily Trades

I estimate hedge fund performance by computing calendar-time transaction portfolios (see, e.g., Seasholes and Zhu, 2010) with holding periods ranging from 21 to 252 days. Across all holding periods, I find no evidence that the average or median hedge fund outperforms, after accounting for trading commissions. However, I find significant evidence of outperformance in the right-tail of the distribution. Specifically, bootstrap simulations indicate that the annual performance of the top 10-30% of hedge funds cannot be explained by luck. Similarly, I find that superior performance persists. The top 30% of hedge funds outperform by a statistically significant 0.25% per month over the subsequent year. In sharp contrast to my hedge fund findings, both bootstrap simulations and performance persistence tests fail to reveal any outperformance among non-hedge fund institutional investors….

My remaining tests investigate how outperforming hedge funds (i.e., “star” hedge funds) create value. My main findings can be summarized as follows. First, star hedge funds’ profits are concentrated over relatively short holding periods. Specifically, more than 25% (50%) of star hedge funds’ annual outperformance occurs within the first month (quarter) after a trade. Second, star hedge funds tend to be short-term contrarians with small price impacts. Third, the profits of star hedge funds are concentrated in their contrarian trades. Finally, the performance persistence of star hedge funds is substantially stronger among funds that follow contrarian strategies (or funds with small price impacts) and is not at all present for funds that follow momentum strategies (or funds with large price impacts).