Large US trade imbalance and the Fed’s tightening

The US external trade is weakening rapidly. Its deficit has never been so important (measured in real terms and ex oil trade). Imports have a strong momentum. It reflects the White House fiscal strategy and it is done at the expense of American citizens. Not the good strategy. This large imbalance is also a good reason for the Fed to maintain its tightening bias in order to limit the domestic demand momentum. Powell has spoken many times of the non sustainable fiscal policy of the White House. This trade imbalance is just an illustration of it.

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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

Is the ISM index a bubble?

The ISM index for the manufacturing sector is, in August, at its highest since May 2004. It was then at 61.3 versus 61.4 in May 2004.
The reading of this index is puzzling for different reasons
1 – Since 2011, the average growth in the US is 2.2% but the trend was 2.7% between 2000 and 2007. But the ISM index was, on average, higher since 2011 than before the crisis. Its average was 54.1 from January 2011 to August 2018 but only 52.1 from January 2000 to December 2007. A higher ISM index doesn’t not reflect a stronger growth momentum. We can see that also when looking at the manufacturing production index. On the same periods, the annual growth rate was 1.8% from 2000 to 2007 but 1.15% from 2011 to July 2018.
In other words, the index is higher than in the past while growth is lower. 
2 – There is a robust index calculated by the Federal Reserve of Chicago. The CFNAI (Chicago Fed National Activity Index) is the synthesis of 85 indicators (industrial production, employment, personal income,….). It’s reading is easy with an average at zero and a standard deviation of one.
The CFNAI is an accurate measure of the business cycle based on observed variables. Usually the two profiles are consistent as the graph shows.
Recent data show a persistent divergence between the two. The CFNAI is close to 0 while the ISM is at a high historical level. It is probably too high giving a wrong signal of the US growth strength.ismcfnai-summer2018.png

Dollar set to remain the reference currency for a long time yet

In a recent opinion piece, the German foreign minister Heiko Maas discussed how Europe needs to reassess its partnership with the United States, stating that the two areas have been drifting apart, requiring them to reshape their relationship in light of recent changes, and calling for an assertion of Europe’s autonomy in diplomatic, military and financial terms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel disputed this point of view, refuting this notion of drifting apart, which she believes would damage the very long-standing relationship between Germany and the US, which acted as the foundations for North Atlantic relations. It would also require greater political integration within Europe, which is not the direction Germany wants to take, opting instead for a sort of federal approach without a federal government, but with strict rules for each State. This sits in contrast with French president Emmanuel Macron’s aim and the idea of a substantial European budget to influence the pace of European construction.

Heiko Maas also raised the issue of dependence on the dollar Continue reading

Oil, dollar, wages and unemployment in the US – my Monday column*

Oil prices are soaring out of control to slightly above $75/bbl, while the greenback is gaining ground again, and now stands at under 1.2 to the euro with its effective exchange rate rising swiftly and triggering uncertainty on the markets, particularly emergings.

Meanwhile, wages are still not rising in the US, despite unemployment falling below the 4% mark for the first time since December 2000: at the time, the reference wage was up 3.8% vs. an increase of merely 2.6% in April 2018.

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The Fed increases its rate, but more to come

The Federal Reserve has increased its main interest rate by 25 basis points. The corridor for the fed fund’s rate is now [1.5 – 1.75%] versus [1.25 – 1.50%] since December 13, 2017. The dots graph which represents FOMC members’ expectations of the fed fund suggests that the US central bank will hike its rate 3 times in 2018 (already one is done), 3 times in 2019 but only twice in 2020. The rate’s profile contained in the dots graph is unchanged even if growth expectations are stronger according to these same FOMC members.
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