US Employment data, key points and filler!

Unlike retail sales, industrial production, new orders or a number of other economic data, the employment report comes with a lot of extra filler.  You need to dig down into the ingredients to figure what is and what is not good.  On the surface we have seen a recent deceleration, but nothing which looks out of the ordinary post 2009.

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But what do we see when we dig? 

  • Productivity growth at post war lows!  Employment data is producing less and less and becoming in GDP, asset price support and income growth terms, increasingly diluted.
  • Health care and social assistance has been key to recent employment growth but the growth rate is falling off.  Looking after an aging society may not produce the growth needed to sustain the liabilities attached to the economic frame.  Indeed, many of these liabilities may not be adequately accounted for within asset valuations.
  • If we exclude health care and social assistance from employment date, employment levels only returned to growth on an annual basis in October 2014, making the current employment growth cycle a short one to date.
  • Add food service and drinking places employment (to health care and social assistance) and we have the sum total of jobs created since the recession started.  But even food services and drinking places employment growth has shown a recent declining trend.   Again, the income/productivity dynamics of this type of employment is unsupportive of the current asset/liability frame.
  • Retail trade employment growth was especially strong during the latter part of 2015 (dominated by motor vehicles and parts dealers), although we have seen weakening of late.  Watch out for MVP employment (which means an eye on consumer credit) and buildings and materials (which means an eye on construction).  There has been weakness on the retail side that is obscured by recent April data
  • The weakness in the goods producing industries, construction excepted, and trade and transport is noteworthy in the light of weakness in output, new orders and exports.  These are all key industries in terms of the economy’s ability to provide generate long term GDP, income and productivity growth.   Manufacturing and trade are important cogs in the economic machine.
  • The one relatively strong point in the data remains the professional and technical sub sector of professional services.  Relative to service sector (and hence all employment) it has continued to rise in importance, but the growth rate of this dynamic has slowed in the current cycle.  This may not be a positive for income flows if it represents a movement towards rationalisation of processes (reduced employment at the front end and a small increase at the operational core), reflective of cost reduction and other operational rationalisation.
  • Long term dynamics  – employment growth rates/part time versus full time/self employment versus employed – are all weakening or stuck in a post recession rut.  A lot of recent employment gains look like they are due to a rise in part time employment (which may be a positive if it signals increasing willingness to hire) so growth fundamentals are still very weak and possibly weakening. 

What makes employment growth and the make up of employment growth so important is that it impacts productivity and earnings growth, two key factors that require vigour if we are to accommodate high debt levels and high asset prices.  Other relevant relationships include capital investment (historically weak), income inequality and a slowdown in population growth as well as a shift in its demographics.   Finally, with weak global trade dynamics we have considerable pressure on areas of the economy that have traditionally been important to productivity and earnings growth.  

There is nothing wrong in a declining population and declining growth rates of employment as long as the relationship between asset values (debt/equity) and consumption/investment dynamics are in keeping.   I very much doubt whether it is and this is why employment growth today is a much more important indicator of financial health than it is fundamental economic health.  There are so many straws in the wind!

And the graphics:

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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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“Investing in social infrastructure as an anti-recession tool”

…is the title of a Washington Centre For Equitable Growth article.  I think that there is some logic to investing in social infrastructure in a slowing growth frame. 

WHY?

In a slowing growth frame less of a corporation’s revenue flows are likely to be reinvested and productive capital is likely to be increasingly depreciated over time, depending on the rate of decline of the frame.  At the moment this cash flow, distributed as either dividends or buybacks, is likely to go disproportionately to those with higher wealth and hence more likely to be reinvested in existing assets, driving up their prices.

In a competitive economic model cash flows would be used to finance the transition to lower growth, with flows consumed and/or used to reduce debt.  As people age the costs associated with complex medical and personal  care needs rise, but these are liabilities that are presently not that well funded.  It makes sense to optimise the allocation of flows to a) fund the economic costs of older adult communities and b) make sure that those at the younger end of the scale continue to receive the necessary education and employment skills training.   This would ensure that the expenditure flows in the economic habitat would be healthier in terms of optimising expenditure and investment.  Imbalances due to inefficient distribution of flows are likely to lead to higher asset price and financial system risks.

In a growth frame where higher levels of productive capital investment is needed it makes sense to have lower corporate tax rates, but in a slower growth frame where higher percentages are distributed it would make sense to tax these distributions at higher levels for more efficient distribution.   In a competitive efficient market place without asymmetric properties we would be less likely to have the present skewed distribution of income and wealth and associated funding pressures on key aspects of social infrastructure.

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 Manufacturing orders and inventories to January 2016

A little late in reviewing this data, but here are the takeaways:

We know new order growth had slowed considerably and had been sharply negative for some time at the nominal and moderately so at the real.

The rate of decline has since halted, but real growth is pedestrian and looks to have plateaued at a time when headline employment rates suggest the economy is close to “full” employment. 

Inventories have been scaled back but remain high, and particularly so in the key motor vehicle and parts sector which has shown weakening in momentum and the notable transportation sector.

Wage growth/consumer credit relationships are strained and it is difficult to see where domestic demand growth is going to come from, especially with the global weakness we have seen elsewhere.

Manufacturing is a small but central cog in the machine: its components are used everywhere and a slowdown in one connected cog inevitably implies a changing dynamic elsewhere.

And the pictures:

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I am not a fan of outsized monetary accommodation in a declining growth frame…but what can you do?

Irrespective, deflation is not the issue, but slowing growth within a complex frame over burdened with financial excess and key structural imbalances. 

A recent speech by Andy Haldane has kept the interest rate/zero lower bound debate “bubbling”.   In this speech, “How Low Can You Go”, Haldane broached the issue of monetary policy in the event of another demand shock.  He is quite right to do so since monetary policy would have little room for manoeuvre with interest rates only a scuff mark away from 0%.  His musings suggested getting rid of cash and bringing in negative rates.

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The China Crisis may be signalling the end of the “rationale” for zero lower bound asset price support.

I do not think that anyone really suspects that we are at the start of an aggressive tightening of interest rates by the Federal Reserve.   A 1/4 point increase in rates would be unlikely to do anything much to growth even at today’s relatively low rate of GDP growth.

In truth, the problems with GDP are not necessarily to do with interest rate costs in the sense that growth is not being held back by the cost of money.  Today’s low interest rates are here pretty much as part of an asset price support operation, as is QE.  The reason why they have remained so low, post 2008 (in the US at least), is because of the increasing importance of asset market stability (given debt levels) to the financial system in a low growth, post financial shock, environment.  

As such, interest rate and monetary policy have been supporting the asset price/GDP disconnect post the financial crisis on the assumption that the shock to growth was temporary and transitory.  Unfortunately the impact of the financial crisis on growth was neither, partly because debt levels were higher than could be supported by GDP growth pre crisis, but also because underlying growth, ex monetary/debt stimulus, was declining, for a number of reasons.

Post crisis, what we have had globally is an increase in debt levels, while pre crisis growth levels have not recovered.  The temporary asset price support operation has lasted longer than expected and has facilitated a further increase in asset focussed MS (increasing instability of the financial system), asset prices and asset focussed debt.

Do interest rates need to rise to prevent inflation surging ahead in the US economy? 

Wage growth remains weak and there does not appear to be material capacity constraints at any level.  The only real concern is rising consumer credit: consumer credit relative to income growth, especially non revolving credit, has been rising at historically high levels post crisis.  This hearkens back to fundamental issues in the structure and distribution of key growth drivers that are independent of interest rate factors. 

Low interest rates/QE have enabled further divergence between assets and debt and GDP and income growth, something that I do not believe was originally intended by Fed monetary policy.   The key decision factor for the Fed is not whether this is the right time to raise interest rates at an economic level, but whether there are other more critical forces restricting growth and, as such, whether it is prudent to continue to juice asset/debt markets.  In a low growth environment a ZLB interest policy is only going to create further divergences between asset prices, asset focussed MS/debt and GDP and other key flows supporting GDP.  

I also believe that China’s current problems are signalling an end to the belief that weak growth post crisis was temporary and that unconventional and unusual monetary policy supporting asset prices/debt was valid and the risks containable.  Otherwise, well, interest policy is no more than a “hope and pray” one that supports the build up of market and financial risks relative to growth. 

Thus the Fed when deciding whether or not to raise rates is ultimately deciding the size and timing of the end game: a greater risk later or a lesser, but by no means small, risk now.  I suspect the Fed realises it has delayed a rate rise for far too long, but I also question whether it wishes to sustain the impression that it can be swayed by short term market movements forever.  Does it want to be looked upon as Sisyphus eternally dropping the interest rate ball?   

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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A world in transition, but so many straws in the wind, some thoughts!

Everybody is asking and at times hoping to answer the question as to why world economic growth is slowing down, why is it so sub par, why has it not recovered post the turbulence of 2007 to 2009?   There are many straws in the wind, but which ones are cause, which ones are consequence and which are accommodation linking both?  In a world where diverging tiny margins can accumulate into significant distances it is hard to determine just what and which is the key.

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Not a “Savings Glut” per se but a monetary excess amidst a period of complex global structural economic change!

If you stream through the data it is pretty clear that developed economy growth has been slowing for some time and that monetary policy has accommodated this adjustment with lower interest rates and a relaxed attitude towards money supply growth.  At about the same time these trends were moving ever closer to their sweet spot on the horizon (because we are not yet at peak of this particular movement) certain developing markets really got going, with the help of a fair amount of their own monetary stimulus but also by a reconfiguration of global supply chains and offshoring in key economies.  All factors combined to create a heady and dangerous global financial imbalance, a weak bridge cast across a widening economic divide.  No wonder it all came crashing down..but who was to blame?  The world’s central bankers who were blindsided into excessively lax monetary policy by a low inflationary world that had become obsessed with laying off and chopping and dicing of risk to those “who could best absorb and bear it”, or some of the finer strings in the mesh?  Well, some have chosen to blame excess savings in the emerging/developing part of the world, principally China, but this is all too pat.   The “savings glut” theory, if you can really call it “excess savings”, was merely a return of serve of part of the vast ocean of financial and monetary excess that barrelled through the early to mid 2000s.

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A look at final Q3 GDP..was it really that strong? And what of the Frame?

One of the risks with short term data points is being fooled by their randomness.  I believe the US economic engine is slowing down and that weight of the past remains a significant head wind!

A number superlatives are cropping up re final Q3 GDP numbers:”fastest pace since Q3 2003” and others…

But what of the frame?   If we look at the average increase in real GDP over the last 4 quarters (average change in GDP over 4Qs/average GDP in prior 4 quarters) we see that real GDP growth is relatively low in an historical context and it is unclear whether the current trend is either a bounce back from earlier weakness or a position of growing strength.

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Importantly private consumption expenditure is still outsized with respect to economic growth and other important items such as machinery and equipment expenditure.  That is much of the growth in GDP to date has been due to growth in personal consumption expenditures: 

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US employment data..some important charts..secular stagnation?

I have been through the last US employment report and a few charts stood out from the rest:image

The above shows that the long term growth in total private sector employment in the US has fallen off the edge of a cliff since the late 1990s.  The trend was already set in the post 2001 recovery and has continued to date.   Employment growth is particularly important for economic growth.   The above chart is astonishing in this respect.  I have summed rolling 5 year growth in employment and divided it by the employment level 5 years previously…the one adjustment I have made is to set 5 year previous employment figure as a high water mark input.

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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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The Geneva report and my points on the debt/asset value/IR chokehold

Many of the points I made in my choke point blog are also reflected in the latest Geneva report, Deleveraging? What Deleveraging?

One thing I would like to touch on before I highlight excerpts from that text is that high levels of debt and misallocations of capital may well be a feature of many a boom, but what makes the current situation much different is the fact that interest rates lie on a lower bound, almost incapacitated by a higher bound debt level, itself tied to highly valued asset markets.   High debt levels and weak growth dynamics are dangerous, irrespective of whether you are undecided as to whether high debt led to growth or low growth to high levels of debt, although I tend to believe that the reality is that weakening developed economy growth dynamics accompanied the debt build up prior to the onset of the crisis.  Beyond that point in time, high debt levels I would say are clearly impacting growth.

Whereas all significant debt misallocations have an impact on subsequent bank lending and new credit growth (the stock of broad MS is tied to these low or non performing loans), not all such instances have occurred at such low interest rate levels.  I think this is key, critical and as the Geneva report suggests “poisonous” intersect, although the report itself strays from emphasising what I consider to be the greater risk of high debt levels at low IRs..

Another point that I have laboured is the present value of future output growth or national income relative to debt is out of balance and this is the first time I have seen explicit reference to this in any other document I have read.

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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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Share buybacks..quantitative easing, secular stagnation and the risks of Myopic Share Virus..

The point about share buybacks is that they sit uncomfortably in a widening narrative of increasing inequality, weak income growth (worse at lower income levels), falling economic growth rates and disturbing trends in both human and capital investment. The backdrop to the narrative and one that threatens to envelop it as one are the burgeoning asset and debt markets, whose rise is at odds with the weakening fundamental growth prospects of many developed economies. Asset markets and hence debt are being supported, yet the fundamental underpinning to their longer term valuation, investment and growth in real incomes is being weakened. At some point the two, economic reality and asset market capitalisation will need to meet.

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Weak wage growth, declining CAPEX and increasing share buybacks

I just wanted to extend the line of thought I was developing in my previous blog post: that is of the synchronisation of weak growth/capex and the increasing amount of corporate capital being allocated to share buybacks.

To a certain extent they all have one common thread, and that is a depreciation of corporate assets both current human and capital, and, with respect to the future, lower future rates of productivity growth that reduced human/capex investment imply.  I also thought it worthwhile noting the decline in shareholder capital on the balance sheet of corporations like IBM and the increase in liabilities.   Companies are becoming more highly leveraged at a time when economic growth and its important driver, income growth, is on a distinctly weakening trend.  

So when the cycle turns, what should we expect to see happen first?  An uptick in wages followed by capex and new issuance, or would buybacks slack off first, followed then by wage growth and finally capital expenditure.  Or should we first look earlier in the chain to the composition of employment?  

If we are in a strong stagnation dynamic I would expect that the economy would move through several iterations before a new wage growth cycle gains its own momentum.  And there are many stagnation dynamics overlaying the economic structure….

There is of course another interpretation of falling wages…a decline in the investment in human capital.. a part of secular stagnation

More and more people are talking about declining real and nominal wage growth and more and more people are asking when is wage growth going to pick up. 

It is a very good point.  But I think we need to look at the dynamics of wage growth from another perspective.   This perspective is that of human capital investment: wages are an investment in human capital and you pay more when you want to invest/upgrade/increase productivity etc.  If you expect to grow and you expect to depend on investment in human capital to grow, you will invest more, and one indicator of this investment is wages.

Now, we know that capital investment as a % of GDP has been declining for some time and we also know that corporations have been buying back shares and borrowing money to do so.  But these three (wages, capex, buybacks) all look to me to be pretty synchronised.

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It looks pretty much as if corporations are adjusting to lower long term economic growth either as a consequence of lower wage growth, less investment or some other natural dynamic —productivity/TFP or demographic dynamic.  Of those who discuss the issue of secular stagnation many point to the 1980s as the starting point and the trends noted above would fit into this timeframe….