(Note: I am feeling bearish today, especially looking back to lost opportunities to get ahead of the current environment.)
By mid-summer it was evident the recovery was in jeopardy, that the slowdown in economic activity could not be entirely explained by temporary factors, that unemployment would remain unacceptably high, and that the slow motion train wreck that is the European experiment would be resolved only in the aftermath of financial chaos.
The Fed had the opportunity to get ahead of the curve. They chose not to. To be sure, they offered some half-hearted support to the existing policy stance. But this amounts to bring a knife to a gunfight.
At this point, we are faced with mounting recession forecasts. The Economic Cycle Research Institute publicly announced their recession call last week, confidently expecting to extend their 3-0 forecasting record. Nouriel Roubini already offered up his recession call. Today, Goldman Sachs placed 40% odds on recession in 2012.
And in the Goldman Sachs call lays the obstacle to an aggressive monetary response, as opposed to the simple rearranging of the deck chairs currently underway. There may be widespread belief that the seeds of the recession are planted and beginning to sprout, but the near-term data certainly will not confirm a recession is underway. From the Wall Street Journal:
So far, as many economists point out, the worst readings on the economy come from sentiment measures rather than hard numbers on economic activity.
The pessimism among consumers and businesses alike may be reactions to political uncertainty and the volatility in the stock market, while the nuts-and-bolts data on the U.S. economy look better.
In the latest round of data, August construction spending surprisingly rose 1.4% when a 0.4% drop was expected. September factory activity beat forecasts as well. The Institute for Supply Management said the sector’s expansion strengthened for the first time since June.
The data point to real gross domestic product growing at an annual rate above 2% in the third quarter, more than double the pace of the first half.
The economy was not in recession in the third quarter, which means the backward looking data flow through this month will not be particularly dire. We are really looking for whatever acceleration we see in third quarter GDP growth to ebb in the fourth quarter, a bad omen for the fiscal drag we will experience as the payroll tax credit expires. On top of that, you have to believe in unicorns and fairies if you think the European crisis is going to go anywhere other than from bad to worse in the next three months. The lesson of the past two years is the Europeans will arrive late and bring a club to the gunfight. Indeed, while today’s late rally was credited to the latest round of optimism on Europe, via Bloomberg:
Equities rebounded after the S&P 500 fell below 1,090.89, the closing level required to give the index a 20 percent slump from the three-year high reached on April 29. Stocks rose after the Financial Times quoted Olli Rehn, European commissioner for economic affairs, as saying there is an “increasingly shared view” that the region needs a coordinated approach to halt the sovereign debt crisis. After U.S. markets closed, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said a “bad bank” to hold Dexia SA (OTC:DXBGF)’s troubled assets will be set up.
The reality is likely less optimistic:
“People are looking for optimism anywhere they can get it,” said Christopher Bury, co-head of fixed-income rates at Jefferies & Co., one of the 22 primary dealers that trade with the Federal Reserve. “You have these random stories and the market reacts, but how many times have we been down this road where these are just words?”
One additional note on the global environment – signs are emerging that the long running Chinese property boom is running into trouble. From Deustche Bank and via Business Insider:
In recent weeks, the number of phone calls received by an author of this report from China-based property agents has increased several fold, indicating a significant rise in the urgency for developers to raise cash from selling properties. A property consultant told us that he recently received requests to help raise RMB10bn for cash-strapped small and medium-sized property developers – this amount is a huge multiple of what he is used to dealing with. In the offshore market, where many Chinese developers seek foreign currency funding due to lack of access to domestic funds (the domestic stock, bond and trust loan markets are closed to them due to policy tightening, and banks are also very stringent), their USD bond yields have surged to 20-25% in past weeks from around 10% before August. This means that even the offshore markets are now largely closed to Chinese developers…
The Chinese government will act to cushion the downside for their property sector, but what will be the consequences of even a short-term slowdown for a global economy already on the downside?
Put aside the non-recessionary real economy data and instead turn to the financial markets for hints. There the signals are decidedly more pessimistic. Equities are heading into bear market territory, interest rates are collapsing, spreads between Treasuries and corporate debt are widening, commodity prices are in virtual free-fall, and the TED spread, while still well short of the highs reached during the financial crisis, have more than doubled from 15bp in the spring to 38bp now.
There is no way to read the ongoing financial turmoil as anything other than increasing fear that a recession is underway. Perhaps it is all simply a growth scare, and that in a few months we will wonder what all the fuss was about. But ECRI believes it is already too late for that story:
A new recession isn’t simply a statistical event. It’s a vicious cycle that, once started, must run its course. Under certain circumstances, a drop in sales, for instance, lowers production, which results in declining employment and income, which in turn weakens sales further, all the while spreading like wildfire from industry to industry, region to region, and indicator to indicator. That’s what a recession is all about.
About the only good news is that, as pointed out by Goldman Sachs, perhaps the downside will remain limited:
The downside risk is of course that these financial spillovers--or conceivably some other shock, perhaps greater fiscal tightening in 2012 than we now anticipate--prove sufficient to push the US economy into recession; both a quantitative model and our subjective assessment put recession risk in the neighborhood of 40% at this point. For now, we still think the base case is that the US economy avoids this outcome. The cyclical sectors of the economy are already quite depressed--in particular, homebuilding is barely above the depreciation rate of housing--so downside looks more limited.
Cold comfort, according to ECRI:
It’s important to understand that recession doesn’t mean a bad economy – we’ve had that for years now. It means an economy that keeps worsening, because it’s locked into a vicious cycle. It means that the jobless rate, already above 9%, will go much higher, and the federal budget deficit, already above a trillion dollars, will soar.
Here’s what ECRI’s recession call really says: if you think this is a bad economy, you haven’t seen anything yet. And that has profound implications for both Main Street and Wall Street.
With the US, we know that fiscal policy is off the table as gridlock rules the day in Washington. What more, it looks like the Federal Reserve resistance to additional action is at least partly based on a conviction this is no longer a problem for monetary policy – it is up to fiscal policy now. To be sure, financial markets today were at least initially buoyed by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s comment:
The Committee will continue to closely monitor economic developments and is prepared to take further action as appropriate to promote a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability.
But, after financial market participants sober up, they should recognize that this is nothing new. The Fed will offer more support. A hint from Bernanke as quoted by the Wall Street Journal:
Republicans also pressed the Fed chairman on the risk that the central bank could be stirring inflation with its efforts to pump money into the financial system to bring down interest rates. Mr. Bernanke dismissed such worries. He said a spurt in consumer prices earlier this year was already receding and that unemployment was a bigger threat.
"Right now, frankly, we're much further away from full employment than we are from price stability," he said. With that comment was a hint: The Fed might not be hurrying to do more to help the economy right now, but it is still leaning in that direction.
The only question is when and how much. Already, though, it is arguably too late. Recession or just slow growth, the policy delay will weigh heavily on the unemployed. Moreover, the Fed chair gives us little reason to believe he has much to offer:
Monetary policy can be a powerful tool, but it is not a panacea for the problems currently faced by the U.S. economy. Fostering healthy growth and job creation is a shared responsibility of all economic policymakers, in close cooperation with the private sector. Fiscal policy is of critical importance, as I have noted today, but a wide range of other policies--pertaining to labor markets, housing, trade, taxation, and regulation, for example--also have important roles to play. For our part, we at the Federal Reserve will continue to work to help create an environment that provides the greatest possible economic opportunity for all Americans.
How different is this view from that of Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher in defending his last dissent?
One other factor gave me pause and that was, and remains, the moral hazard of being too accommodative. For years, I have been arguing that monetary policy cannot solve the problem of substandard economic performance unless it is complemented by fiscal policy and regulatory reform that encourages the private sector to put to work the affordable and abundant liquidity we are able to create as the nation’s monetary authority. These actions are not within the Fed’s purview; they are the business of Congress and the president.
I fail to see the wisdom in neglecting policy options simply because Congress is falling down on the job.
It seems that Bernanke is more center-right of Fed policymakers than center-left. Which suggests that he will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into another round of asset purchases. And, unfortunately, we will first need to see more citizens added to the ranks of the unemployed for that to happen.
Perhaps events will evolve in such away that the current round of pessimism will prove unfounded. But even if we avoid recession, the slow growth and constant threat of recession serve as a reminder that policymakers have fallen far short of doing what is needed to lift the economy from the zero bound. And, worse yet, neither monetary nor fiscal authorities appear particularly worried about achieving such a goal.