Thursday, October 30, 2014

$2 trillion GDP shortfall

Third quarter real GDP grew somewhat faster than expected (3.5% vs. 3.0%), and on top of the 2nd quarter's 4.6%, that gives us annualized growth of just over 4%. Wow: has economic growth really ramped up than much? I'd like to think things have improved a bit of late, but in any event it's premature to reach that conclusion—we'll need to see at least another quarter's worth of stronger growth to be sure.

Abstracting from the quarterly numbers, which are always volatile, real GDP growth over the past two years has been 2.3% annualized (see chart above). It's also been 2.3% annualized since the recovery began in mid 2009. This has been a 2.3% growth rate recovery for over 5 years. Nothing much has changed, at least so far.

As the chart above shows, this has been the weakest recovery in history. The economy is now about 10% below its long-term trend growth potential. In other words, nominal GDP today would have to be $2 trillion higher to get us back on the economy's long-term trend. Due to a variety of factors (e.g., too much income redistribution, high marginal tax rates, too many additions to regulatory burdens, Obamacare, geopolitical uncertainty, unusually strong and persistent risk aversion, the retirement of the baby boomers), we are missing out on $2 trillion of annual income and 10 million or so jobs.

This is a big deal, and this is why the electorate is upset. We've made some terrible decisions and left an awful lot of money on the table.

But I do think it's likely that the economy is gaining strength on the margin. One reason for that is the big decline in government spending relative to GDP, which has dropped from a high of 24.4% to 20.3% in the past five years (see chart above), mainly because spending has not increased at all during this recovery. Spending is taxation, so what we've seen in the past five years is a huge decline in expected tax burdens. A considerable amount of weight has been lifted from taxpayers' shoulders. The private sector now has more breathing room. The private sector is now spending a larger share of its own money, and that means that spending in aggregate will be smarter, more efficient, and more productive. (Keynesians, by the way, get this all wrong: they think the economy has suffered because the government has not spent more and because the deficit has declined—that fiscal austerity is the culprit behind weak growth.)

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that the electorate next week will repudiate the current administration's policies. At the very least we are likely to see congressional gridlock, which could keep spending from growing and reduce the burden of government further. More likely, we'll seen Congress make progress on reducing our onerous corporate tax rate, which could result in more new investment and more new jobs. We might even see some much-needed reform of our absurdly distorted tax code, and some sensible, market-based reforms to healthcare.

You can already feel the policy winds shifting. Instead of headwinds, we are starting to get tailwinds. This is very good news. There is a lot of ground to make up, and a lot of upside potential if we get things right in the next few years. It pays to remain optimistic.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

QE3 R.I.P.

Today the Federal Reserve confirmed what the bond market has been expecting for many months: QE3 has ended, effective this week. What we don't know yet, however, is whether the end of QE3 will lead to another round of economic and financial market distress like we saw after the end of QE1 and QE2. I think we'll be OK this time around, because several key indicators today look a lot healthier than they did when QE1 and QE2 ended.

But first, let me point out once again that the real purpose of QE was not to print money or stimulate growth. It was to "transmogrify" notes and bonds into T-bill substitutes (aka bank reserves). QE boils down to the Fed simply swapping bank reserves for notes and bonds. Banks have been happy to hold most of the extra reserves as "excess" reserves, which means that they didn't use their reserves to collateralize a huge increase in lending. There was a huge demand for reserves qua reserves, and QE simply satisfied that demand. Without QE there would have been a critical shortage of safe, risk-free assets, and that would have threatened financial stability.

This time around, it looks like the demand for safe assets like bank reserves has declined and there's more financial stability, which means there is no longer a need for QE. Here's a quick look at the evidence:

The chart above shows the history of QE and 10-yr Treasury yields. Most of the Fed's quantitative easing efforts were focused on longer-term Treasuries, in a professed attempt to artificially depress yields and thus stimulate lending and the economy. But as the chart demonstrates, 10-yr yields rose over the course of each episode of QE. Moreover, 10-yr yields were unchanged during the period of Operation Twist, in spite of the fact that OT placed extra emphasis on bringing down 10-yr yields by buying long bonds and selling short bonds. In short, QE never achieved its intended result. I think that's because monetary policy is incapable of artificially manipulating long-term Treasury yields. Those yields are not determined by the size of Fed bond purchases, but rather by the bond market's perception of underlying economic and inflation fundamentals. Yields rose despite QE purchases because QE addressed a fundamental problem—a shortage of risk-free assets—and thus QE improved the outlook for growth.

It may sound strange, but despite the Fed's massive purchases of notes and bonds (totaling over $3 trillion), the Fed today holds about the same percentage of outstanding Treasuries as it did 10 years ago (see chart above). To be fair, a good portion of the Fed's holdings of Treasuries prior to the Great Recession were T-bills (a little over 30%). The Fed sold almost all of its T-bills in the first half of 2008 as it tried to respond to the market's desperate desire for risk-free assets. But it wasn't enough, and that is one of the reasons the Fed decided to embark on QE1.

In any event, after all those purchases of notes and bonds, 10-yr yields today are right around the same level as they were when QE1 was first launched. As the chart also shows, the correlation between big changes in the Fed's bond holdings and the level of 10-yr yields is not what we were told to expect. Big increases in Fed bond purchases (i.e., periods in which the blue line rose) were supposed to produce big declines in yields, because lots of Fed bond buying would push bond prices up. More often than not, however, the reverse occurred (i.e., both the red and blue lines moved together).

The chart above compares the S&P 500 index to the Euro Stoxx index. Both suffered serious corrections following the (largely unexpected) end of QE1 and QE2. The market is understandably concerned that this might happen again, now that QE3 has ended. Note, however, that equity valuations are significantly better today than they were at the end of QE1 and QE2, even though the end of QE3 has been known with reasonable certainty for many months. QE1 and QE2 were never tapered, by the way, they just ended all of a sudden. In contrast, the Fed has been tapering QE3 for the past 10 months. The end of QE3 cannot be a surprise or a disappointment to anyone at this point. If anything, it's a relief to know that it's over.

The chart above compares the level of 2-yr swap spreads—excellent coincident and leading indicators of systemic risk and economic and financial market health (see longer explanation here)—in both the U.S. and the Eurozone. Note that swap spreads rose significantly in advance of the recession and declined significantly in advance of the beginning of recovery. Note that they also rose following the end of QE1 and QE2. The major source of risk in the past four years has been the Eurozone, which has struggled with sovereign default risk and a double-dip recession. Eurozone banks were desperate to shore up their balance sheets throughout, thus creating significant demand for risk-free assets. Eurozone swap spreads were already elevated—symptomatic of rising systemic risk—in the runup to both QE1 and QE2, and they widened further after they ended. U.S. swap spreads rose in sympathy with Eurozone spreads, but to a lesser degree and starting from a lower base. Today, swap spreads in both regions are comfortably within "normal" territory. This, along with higher equity prices, suggests that the end of QE3 will not be painful.

The chart above compares the price of gold to the price of 5-yr TIPS, using the inverse of their real yield as a proxy for their price. Both of these are unique types of risk-free assets. Gold, because it is a classic refuge from political and monetary risk, and TIPS, because they are protected against inflation, they pay a government guaranteed real yield, and they are relatively short-term in nature. As the chart shows, the prices of both of these risk-free assets have been declining for the past few years. In other words, the market's demand for risk-free assets is lower (and falling on the margin) than it was when QE1 and QE2 were terminated. Again, this suggests that the end of QE3 should not result in tears. The market is no longer in need of more risk-free securities.

QE3, R.I.P.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Climbing the latest wall of worry

As I mentioned about three weeks ago, stocks have been climbing walls of worry throughout the recovery which began some 5 ½ years ago. Almost every selloff in the past two years has been accompanied by/caused by an emotional response to new or recurring sources of uncertainty and fear. The latest wall of worry was built on a foundation of concern for the health of the Eurozone, the Chinese economy, and the spread of Ebola.

But as long as the economy avoids a recession, it is hard to keep stock prices down, especially when cash yields almost nothing and earnings are robust. If the fears aren't realized, emotions drop and prices pop back up.

Nothing says it better than the chart above. The ratio of the Vix index (a proxy for the cost of options that reduce one's equity risk) to the 10-yr Treasury yield (a proxy for the market's confidence in the health of the economy) spiked at precisely the time the equity market hit its recent lows. Since then, the Ebola crisis seems less likely to spiral out of control, the Eurozone appears to be stabilizing, and we continue to get positive readings on key economic stats here. Here are some of the latest signs of strength and expansion:

I don't usually pay much attention to the regional Fed economic activity indices, but today's release of the Richmond Fed's Manufacturing Index piqued my interest. It's normally quite volatile—which is why it should be taken with a few grains of salt—but the latest reading was the third strongest in the current business cycle expansion, and over the past 20 years it has only rarely been this strong. Something good must be going on in the Richmond area.

September capital goods orders were down a bit, but this series too is quite volatile. On a year over year basis, orders are up a solid 7.6%. Using a rolling 3-mo. average, the index is up at an annualized pace of 11% over the past six months. By just about any measure, this proxy for business investment looks healthy and strong. It hasn't yet exceeded its prior high in inflation-adjusted terms, and that's disappointing, but then again we know that the current expansion has been sub-par, and weighted down by pervasive risk aversion. The important thing to focus on is the change on the margin, and that is undeniably positive. The broader durable goods orders (ex-transportation) is up at a 6.4% annualized pace over the past six months.

The Markit survey of Eurozone manufacturing conditions in October ticked up a bit, suggesting that at the very least the region is not headed down a black hole. The Eurozone is seriously lagging the U.S. economy, but it is not collapsing.

Falling energy prices are virtually certain to make a positive contribution to growth both here and abroad. Crude oil is down almost 30% from its 2011 high, and gasoline prices at the pump (see chart above) are down by 25%. Pump prices will likely keep falling to at least $2.90/gal., according to the current price of gasoline futures. It takes energy to run an economy (consumers spend about 6% of their total consumption expenditures on energy), so when energy becomes cheaper the GDP pie tends to grow since money is freed up for other things.