US retail sales…Is the Sun really shining again?

Retail sales takeaways:

  • In rebound mode, but nothing as yet to suggest trend of slowing growth cycles has been broken.
  • Motor Vehicle and Parts sales, a key driver of sales growth heretofore, looks to have slipped to a much lower gear: less consumer credit growth fuelling demand?
  • Retail sales adjusted for CPI ex shelter and adjusted for population growth only just bubbling up around pre crisis levels.
  • Seasonality: some questions over the extent to which seasonality is impacting the data.
  • Inventory to retail sales growth at historically high levels: economy exposed to heightened short term risks to spending.
  • CPI ex shelter, flatlining post 2012.
  • Boundaries to retail sales growth: consumer credit to disposable income ratios, long term income growth declines, peak personal consumption expenditures and continuation of weak profile post late 1990s: longer term dynamics at play.

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US incomes…peaked or just about to surge?

If we look at real disposable personal income growth from the latest BEA data update we see what might appear to be, on the surface, a robust recovery:

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Quarterly data shows similar traction:

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But real data has benefited from falling energy prices and nominal flows are not as strong, in fact if we focus on nominal flows we are in the midst of a clear downward movement:

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US Q1 GDP..big picture concerns conflate with shorter term weakness!

The big picture is the risk that growth may well have peaked in the current cycle:

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And personal consumption expenditure flows (population adjusted) have arced in a worrying sign of secular decline for some time:

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GDP growth less private employment growth has been negative since Q4 2010, one of the very few such periods in the post war period and the weakest to date and symptomatic of weak productivity and wage growth:

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Preliminary US GDP grew by a real $22bn in the first quarter.  Given that we are unlikely to see the weather related bounce back in growth that we saw last year, we are left wondering where growth is going to come from in the second and third quarters, especially if global trade fundamentals remain weak.

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US debt/asset dynamics……the bubble the Fed appears not to see

In last week’s “Decision Making at the Federal Reserve” at the International House of New York Janet Yellen said that the US economy had made tremendous progress in recovering from the damage caused by the financial crisis, that labour markets were healing and that the economy was on a solid course.  She also said the economy was not a bubble economy, and that if you were to look for evidence of financial instability brewing you would not find it in key areas: over valued asset prices, high leverage and rapid credit growth.  She and the FRB did not see those imbalances and despite weak growth would not describe what we currently see in the US as a bubble economy.

Perhaps the question was the wrong one.   The bubble, indeed most bubbles, are financial in nature and relate to both the flow of financing and the current stock of financing.   We are always in a bubble to some extent given that one of the key facets of the monetary system is the discounting of the present value of future flows through the allocation of assets, principally of money relative to all other assets.  Today’s differential between what the economy can produce over time and the value and supply of assets that represent the future expenditure flows from our economy, are I believe, in excess of the present value of those flows.  Part of this is due to monetary stimulus designed to drive growth forward in the face of demographic change, increasing income inequality (which weakens the expenditure base of the economy) and important transitions in key emerging economies that have numerous structural relationships.

We are in a bubble and while the economic issue today is one of a deflating frame (i.e. not one with inflationary characteristic usually associated with economic overheating), the differential between the financial frame and the economic has arguably never been so wide.  Perhaps the Federal Reserve should have defined what they believed to be a bubble or rather the moderator should have been a bit cleverer! 

Some may say that excess financial leverage of households has moved back to more sensible levels:  the following chart shows that consumer debt levels have moved back to early 2004 levels but that these levels were associated with much higher longer term real GDp growth rates.  In this context debt has not really fully adjusted.

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And, looking at shorter term real growth trends we see that real GDP growth has peaked at much lower levels relative not just to total debt to the rate of increase in consumer debt.  One would be forgiven for thinking that the last 5 years included a recession in the data, but it has not:

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US retail sales

With the recent CPI data I have updated my retail sales graphics.  Takeaways?

  1. Sales growth is slowing but no recessionary conditions;
  2. Weak historical growth profile held up by motor vehicles and parts sales;
  3. Motor vehicle and parts sales held up by consumer credit growth;
  4. Points 2 and 3 slowing;
  5. While personal disposable income has exceeded retail sales growth of late, cumulative historic relationship remains weak;
  6. Consumer credit growth to income relationships strained;
  7. Population growth weak in historical context;
  8. Current cycle lacking in typical wage growth spike

And the graphs:

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US – Some interesting charts on income, GDP and new manufacturing orders from recent data

There are some interesting patterns and trends in US data: so I do ask myself, are we at the peak of the current cycle, are we as far as debt and low interest rates can take us?

US income growth has long been acknowledged to have weakened considerably yet recent data shows that the trend has indeed been weaker than first thought.  Note the following chart showing pre and post revisions to chained per capita personal disposable income:

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A Foray into the Fundamentals of Austerity in Anticipation of the Outcome.

A recent IMF report pointed out some supposed vast amounts of room available for the world’s economies to step up government borrowing to finance consumption, investment and production decisions.   Oddly the report appeared to ignore other forms of debt and material deterioration in key areas of the economic frame.  

When the crisis broke back in 2007 it was clear to me that monetary and fiscal policy would likely need to go for broke to support economic growth and employment at a time of collapsing asset values, debt defaults and a world wide retrenchment in expenditure of all kinds.   As it happened a great deal of that support went into asset prices and financial institutions.

But some years after the crisis, after a slow and drawn out recovery with interest rates locked to the floor, economies still appear to be borderline reliant on debt financed government expenditure.  Any attempt to reduce borrowing, to either raise taxes or cut expenditure to pay back debt would be considered by many to have an adversely negative impact on economic growth, especially at such low growth rates. 

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In the context of interest rate decisions you have to ask yourself just what are we waiting for?

I have seen that the IMF has asked the Fed to defer interest rate increases until we see clear signs of wage increases and inflationary pressure.

The request IMO is both scary and rationale given that so much of today’s National Income Accounting Identity (output=C+I+X-M) relies on factors that lie outside of its operation.  I speak of new bank generated loan growth given that income growth/distribution and investment growth still appear to be weak in the scheme of things..i.e. C+I the drivers. 

The last time the FRB delayed interest rate increases we had a debt financed consumption boom in the US followed by IR increases and a de facto financial collapse.   By raising rates we likely restrict one of the few modes of generating consumption growth in the US (note auto loans) and many other countries.  We also likely raise the impact of existing debt burdens on what are to date still historically low rates of income/wage growth.  

As such you have to ask yourself just what are we waiting for?  Well we need higher income growth, but not just higher income growth: we need a more equitable and fair distribution so that economic growth itself becomes less reliant on debt and low interest rates, and less exposed to the scary divergence of asset values. 

But the world is also changing in ways that question whether we can effectively outwait the inevitable: populations are aging and declining.  Areas where the frame can still expand in consumption terms, areas such as China, may be heading into their own period of slow growth and low IR debt support. 

Importantly will the status quo submit to a reconfiguration of the pie and can the world assume a less debt dependent economic raison d’etre?  

So yes, the rationale to defer interest rate rises is both scary and realistic, but it fails to answer important questions: what are we waiting for, how long can we wait, and are our hopes realistic? 

This is just a quick 3 minute post, but the issues are critical!

Some brief thoughts on US Incomes and expenditures

Inflationary dynamics have brought about a large relative increase in real incomes over the last six months or so. 

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Yes it looks as if much of the most recent improvement has not been “spent”, but it is only 1 or 2 months into this gap which must itself be set against strained income increases over the last decade.  Longer trends and frames remain important for the sustained growth rates over time and the current frame remains a weak one.  Personal consumption expenditures as a % of disposable income remain at historically high levels and consumer credit growth may also be a notably factor weighing against leeway for growth in consumption (see end of post).

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Some important dynamics from US Q4 GDP Update

A weak frame:

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Personal consumption expenditure is the most important component of US GDP and growth in real Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) is tied to the productive capacity of the economy.  So why on a real per capita basis has the economy failed to produce sustained increases in consumption capacity post the early 1980s?  And note that this is despite an increase in PCE as a % of GDP over the post war period. 

And also on a nominal basis:

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How reliant in fact has GDP been on the PCE component? Growth in PCE has eclipsed both GDP and equipment investment over the post war period, and significantly so.   The question begging to be asked is,”where is growth going to come from?”

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In another recent blog I exposited about asset valuations relative to GDP growth.  Now the charts above show the increasing reliance of US GDP on PCE, a component which appears to have outsized importance in GDP terms.  Well the following shows even PCE growth being dwarfed by increases in household asset values:

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In fact we can see that PCE expenditures have been less reliant on income growth post 2000s:

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And looking at nominal GDP only, if we adjust for inventories and the impact of changes in consumer credit we find a much subdued trend in growth:

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And nominal growth in expenditures have been declining:

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And motor vehicles etc continue to be an important part of consumer expenditure…

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And relative to the prior debt fuelled cycle we find that expenditure on MVPs and RV combined is a much greater…I have pointed out concerns with respect to the growth in non revolving consumer credit relative to income growth, a ratio which stands at historically high levels.

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Services expenditure has been increasingly volatile:

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And note the importance of health care expenditure:

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Interestingly if we take out healthcare expenditure from PCE, PCE as a % of GDP has been more more stable..

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And financial services expenditure has also picked up since Q1 2013:

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Interestingly, all the domestic investment components (on a nominal basis) are turning down in a synchronised way:

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Exports have been an important driver of growth recently, but more recently has fallen back as a nominal driver of expenditure: there are many explanations for this amongst them the recent decline in the oil price and weakening global demand growth.

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And of course the chart raises the question, where is the growth going to come from?

Finally, a quick peek at growth in commercial bank deposits relative to nominal GDP growth:

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US consumer debt and income dynamics are quite constrained!

Low savings rates, high levels of consumption relative to income and a heightened dependence on current transfers for income growth looks to be a poor frame for consumption growth.  Too much reliance is being placed on “auto loans” and a steady if unspectacular growth in employment.

US consumer debt has been growing at a reasonable pace, and non revolving debt particularly so.  In fact if we relate annual average growth in non revolving debt to growth in personal disposable income (using 3 year rolling averages) we find that non revolving credit growth is at historically high levels relative to income growth.

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China may have a perfect deflationary frame!

Just a quick post!

In an October 29 blog post I talked about risks posed by outsized debt financed gross fixed capital investment binges and high savings rates.   I wanted to refer to this with respect to deflationary risks in East Asian economies, per a rather good piece by Ambrose Evans Pritchard in the Telegraph.

Strictly speaking:

Price x quantity = output, and output more or less = national income.

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QE and metaphysical dialogue

Once upon a time economic analysis was “relatively” straightforward…growing, slowing, boom, recession…all part of an upward cycle…even if you got it wrong, it never really mattered…most problems appeared consequences of excess growth…

Something changed some time way back and we have been edging in spurts, lunges and various headlong gallops to yet higher precipitous vantage points…the valleys along the way have also yielded some many interesting experiences….whether this change was a structural process that started some way back in the 1980s (secular stagnation and there are indications this could be the case), or the consequence of a misplaced emphasis on maintaining the stability of the business cycle in the late 1990s (LTCM, Asian Crisis..again consequences of this are clear), that saw central banks lowering interests rates to maintain the growth cycle, or the increasing levels of consumption and debt and widening wealth and income inequality that came hand in hand with lower interest rates and more “stable” and longer growth cycles and or financial deregulation, is a part of the overall complexity of the matter. 

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A debt/asset value/IR bounded endogenous monetary chokehold: Comments on “Patience is a Virtue When Normalising Policy”

The primary interest rate conflict is not between inflation and growth, but between asset prices and a potential asset price shock to growth and the financial system.  Increasing income inequality and weak wage growth keeps the US and other economies within a debt/asset value/IR bounded endogenous money supply chokehold.    A successive series of debt/asset bubbles and interest rate lows are not a succession of unrelated incidents but a tightening of an extremely dangerous grip.

In the most recent Federal reserve Bank of Chicago Missive,  Patience Is a Virtue When Normalizing Monetary Policy, much interesting information was imparted on employment trends…but  there was little comment about interest rates and their relationship with the build up of asset focussed money supply growth……this build up of broad MS was and still is reflected in highly valued asset markets and global debt accumulation.  Its magnitude can be gauged by the large surge in broad MS growth over and above nominal GDP growth.

“With the economy undershooting both our employment and inflation goals, monetary policy does not presently face a conflict in goals;

I foresee a time when a policy dilemma might emerge: Namely, we could find ourselves in a situation in which the progress or risks to one of our goals dictate a tightening of policy while the achievement of the other goal calls for maintaining strong accommodation.

So what happens when a conflict emerges?”

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The economic crisis was not a Monte Carlo event. My comments on Prof Sufi’s statement to Senate Sub Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs

I must admit I have not read the House of Debt, but I did read Professor Sufi’s statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy.

While I agree with a lot of what Professor Sufi says about the impact of debt (I also share his concerns about income growth and about the worrying trend in auto loans) I disagree with the angle of a number of his statements:

How did we get into this mess? And why is it taking so long to recover? My research with Atif Mian at Princeton University suggests that the culprit is the devastation of wealth suffered by middle and lower income American households during the Great Recession.  The weak recovery is due in part to the lack of any rebound in wealth among these households since the end of the recession.

It was not the devastation of wealth per se but the accumulation of debt combined with invigorating domestic and global structural imbalances that led to the crisis.  The increase in the value of homes prior to the housing collapse was a consequence of excessive asset focussed money supply growth, lax lending standards and attendant growth in consumer debt.  To pin the blame on asset prices incorrectly ascribes blame to the natural risk and volatility of asset prices.

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Re Neil Irwin’s Archive “You Can’t Feed a Family With G.D.P.”…but the family has been eating GDP???

In a recent Washington Post article Neil Irwin quipped  that you cannot feed a family with GDP and illustrated this comment with a graph of GDP relative to income growth.  The graph showed the rate of growth of GDP and median income moving in opposite directions from circa 1998 onwards.  

My point is that the family has been feeding its family with GDP, to a large extent, via debt and falling savings and that it was the combination of high debt levels and weak income growth that played a major role in the crisis and weak economic growth thereafter. 

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We can see that personal consumption expenditures grew at roughly the same rate as GDP up to the early 1980s, started to grow at a moderately higher rate between early 1980s and 1997, and then spiked higher…

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Comments on Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin on Household Debt and Spending

The Bank of England report “Household debt and spending” stated that “it is difficult to evaluate whether debt has had any impact on UK household spending using aggregate data alone. Indeed, UK consumption grew at roughly the same rate between 1999 and 2007, when debt was rising rapidly, as it did between 1992 and 1998, when debt did not increase relative to income. This, together with the fact that increases in household debt were largely matched by a build-up in assets, is consistent with the suggestion that increases in debt did not provide significant support to consumption.”

First of all household expenditure did not grow at roughly the same rates over this period:

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I have used the start point for the analysis as the peak of the previous economic cycle given that part of the growth in the early 1990s would have been due the rebound in consumption from this earlier recession.  In fact, we can see that growth initially accelerated to Q4 1994, but then set off again on a second substantial leg that peaked between Q1 2000 and Q4 2001.

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Between boom and bust – US Economic context + data charts bonanza

The US economy lies somewhere between boom and bust as shown by the following graphical representation of real GDP growth.  Nevertheless, there are aspects of US economic growth that have boom type characteristics/risks; these are found primarily in the significant increases in auto focussed consumer credit and automotive production/capacityimage

Short term data has varied wildly of late; such can often obscure the underlying trend: what if we adjust for inventories and changes in consumer credit?   Well we see less noise for one, but we also see a slower underlying growth profile – yes, credit creation is part and parcel of growing expenditure but I still feel we are in a high debt/deleveraging and weak income growth dynamic that needs to be especially sensitive to growth in credit/debt.

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Some other asset focussed and hence QE relevant charts…

Scratching my head?  How far does this asset thing need to be pushed before mission accomplished?

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The blue line shows household and NPO asset per capita relative to annual growth in income per capita (over rolling 10 year periods).   The red line shows the annualised increase in disposable personal income per capita over 10 year rolling periods.

Now clearly assets are growing relative to income at a time when income growth is declining.   QE is filling the income growth gap.

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US debt service ratios

If you look at debt service ratios from 2008 to date you would be led to believe that consumer indebtedness has improved markedly.  In fact you would believe that conditions are the best they have been since at least the early 1980s.  But if you broaden your perspective you find that conditions today have not strayed too much from those conditions which have been in place for much of the last 14 years. 

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US corporate profits and personal income analysis and charts

Profits as a % of National Income remain elevated:

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Many other commentators have likewise commented on high profit levels in expressing concerns over price earnings ratios.  Importantly the cross reference of personal disposable income growth is also useful in the economic context:

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When have we ever had a bull market with such weak income growth…?   At least not since the 1960s..  

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Is the balance sheet recession over? Financial sector debt…

Financial sector debt (and as noted consumer debt) has fallen significantly since the crisis:

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Yet, if we look at the financial sector assets with respect to non financial sector credit market debt, we start to see an interesting picture:

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Census Bureau–incomes are not enough!

While more of what there is may be flowing to the top 1%, there is altogether less of everything.

Real personal disposable income per capita remains at levels associated with recession, government personal transfer payments remain elevated well above pre recession levels and personal savings remains at post 2000 lows:

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