Trump and the Federal Reserve

Donald Trump hit out again recently at the Federal Reserve for its monetary policy management, taking it to task for hiking interest rates, which he claims would hamper US growth. But this is something of a bold statement given the White House’s fiscal policy.
The chart below depicts US unemployment and the government balance as a percentage of GDP, revealing that the two indicators have trended in a similar way over almost 60 years, each reflecting the US cycle. When economic activity is robust, jobless numbers decrease, while at the same time, tax income increases and spending to support the economy is lower, thereby improving the budget balance. This twofold trend has always worked well, even when Ronald Reagan embarked on economic stimulus at the start of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the budget surplus at the end of the 1990s is also an illustration of this trend, with Bill Clinton’s – fairly smart – moves to implement austerity policies to gain leeway in the event of a downturn in the cycle.

But the current period marks an exception. The cycle is robust, as reflected by the drop in unemployment to 3.7% in September 2018, hitting its lowest since 1969, yet the government balance is not improving, but rather it is deteriorating under the influence of Donald Trump’s policies. The public deficit stands at close to 5%, yet it should have fallen significantly on the back of the economic cycle. The government is driving economic stimulus at a time when the economy is running on full employment.

So it is reasonable for the Fed to take action to counter these excesses and avoid the emergence of persistent imbalances. We cannot rule out the possibility that fiscal policy will bolster domestic demand, triggering a significant surge in inflation and a larger external imbalance despite the White House’s protectionist measures (demand is rising sharply – due to tax cuts and increased spending – and supply does not have time to adjust, which leads to a swell in imports).

The Fed, as embodied by Chair Jay Powell, has clearly indicated that this policy is not sustainable in the medium term and that it must be offset, which is why the Fed is hiking interest ratesand it is right to do so – thereby setting the US economy on a more sustainable path for the medium term.

However, the risk lies in the event of a severe negative economic shock, as there would be no leeway for fiscal policy to adjust, and there would be no scope for raising the budget deficit or implementing a stimulus plan like Obama did in 2009, as the budget deficit is already extensive before a potential shock: the US economy would therefore be hampered over the long term. Trump’s policies will only help the better-off in society, who benefit from lower taxes, while the cost of this policy is spread out across the population via the ensuing increase in the public deficit. And this approach will create even more inequality in the longer term as some Republicans are alarmed at the extent of public debt and are arguing for a reduction in social spending to make this debt sustainable in the medium term. For now, America seems to have lost sight of the meaning of the words equality and fairness.unemploymentand budgetdeficitUS

Asia and emerging countries pull world trade up

World trade figures issued by the Dutch institute CPB have been published for the month of August.
Year-on-year, the improvement observed that has started in June has been extended to August with an increase of 3.8%. This figure is still limited as before the 2008 crisis, average trade growth was 7% per year.
On the graph, however, there is a marked divergence between the pace of trade and the export order indices of the US, Japan and the Euro zone. Usually these two indicators have consistent profiles. World trade is up while the average of these 3 Markit indices continues to deteriorate. We already noted this point a month ago but it is confirmed clearly.worldtrade-August.png

The rebound in trade is mainly seen in emerging countries, particularly in Asia, but Latam and Central Europe are also on the rise. On the other hand, the situation remains weak on developed countries’ side. The trend is stable and is penalized by the pace of the USA and Japan for which the trade retreats over 3 months. The US  which has increased tariffs is paying a high price for this policy. Asia, the US target, is doing well. That’s amazing.
world trade distribution.png

world trade distribution-developed.png
world trade distribution-emerging

Three points on Italy, its budget and the European Commission

The European Commission has just told Italy to revise its 2019 budget plan: the deficit does not look excessive (2.4%), but the figure is deemed to be fragile as growth projections are overly optimistic….and with a government that emerged from a watershed vote, we should expect a certain degree of laxity on spending to boot. The government was not elected to do the same thing as its predecessors, i.e. there is a risk that the budget will spiral out of control and move above the notorious 3% of GDP threshold, which is incompatible with a stabilization in public debt. Italian public debt stands at close to 132% of GDP, well above the standard 60%, and this is not sustainable. Yet does a sustainable trend automatically involve a drastic cut in the public deficit? Maybe not.

There are a number of points worth raising on the budget/Italy/European Commission issue.  Continue reading

France: the growth momentum is lower than expected

The French government is still expecting a robust recovery for the last three months of 2018 and for 2019. Companies’ surveys for October do not allow such optimism. 
The main point is the rapid slowdown in the manufacturing sector. It was the leading sector in 2017 and its dynamics was an important contributor to the strong expansion seen this year. It was a source of impetus for the rest of the economy. 
Its current lower momentum is a source of concern. The retail sales sector is weak reflecting question on purchasing power for every French consumer.
My expectations is that the French economy is back to the trend seen before 2017. It means that the forecast for GDP growth is close to 1.4%. This is consistent with what these surveys say. No strong recovery is expected and the French economy will converge to its potential growth which is lower than 1.5%.
The following graph shows the transitory recovery of 2017.france-semester growth.png 

Continue reading

No more samba in Brazil – My Tuesday column

This post is available in pdf format My Tuesday Column – 9 October 2018

Jair Bolsonaro has come out in the lead in the Brazilian presidential elections with 46%. Looking beyond his very divisive views on certain issues in Brazilian society (status for women, LGBT), on the Paris Agreement and the corruption of previous governments, along with his aim to end Brazil’s endemic violence by allowing Brazilians to take up arms, are there any economic foundations for his likely victory? (see here the Brazilian context of these elections)
This victory has very clear economic explanations. The Brazilian economy has been suffering since 2014 and the collapse in commodities prices. The recession over 2014-2015 and 2016 lasted a very long time, and was followed by a lackluster recovery, which was more of a stabilization than a real rebound. GDP in the second quarter of 2018 still fell 6% short of the 1Q 2014 figure.
This drastic situation can be attributed to two factors. The first is the country’s high dependency on commodities. Brazil enjoyed a very comfortable situation at the start of the current decade when China became its primary trading partner. Opportunities increased and commodities prices soared, so revenues were buoyant and did not encourage investment, creating a phenomenon known as Dutch disease, whereby commodities revenues were such that there was no incentive to invest in alternative businesses. But when Chinese growth began to slow and commodities prices took a nosedive, the Brazilian economy was unable to adapt, so it seized up and plunged into a severe recession.
The other factor is that Brazil devoted hefty financial resources to financing the football World Cup in 2014 and then the Olympic Games in 2016, so in a country with a massive current account deficit, this put a lot of pressure on financing. Funding for public infrastructure replaced investment in production, thereby making the country’s Dutch disease even worse.
The Brazilian population has paid a high price for the country’s brief moment of glory. Continue reading