The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.
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September 30, 2011
Fed Treasury purchases: How big is big?
In his July 13 testimony to Congress, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed the large-scale asset purchase program to buy $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities that started in November 2010 and was completed in June 2011. The chairman noted:
"The Federal Reserve's acquisition of longer-term Treasury securities boosted the prices of such securities and caused longer-term Treasury yields to be lower than they would have been otherwise. In addition, by removing substantial quantities of longer-term Treasury securities from the market, the Fed's purchases induced private investors to acquire other assets that serve as substitutes for Treasury securities in the financial marketplace, such as corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities. By this means, the Fed's asset purchase program—like more conventional monetary policy—has served to reduce the yields and increase the prices of those other assets as well. The net result of these actions is lower borrowing costs and easier financial conditions throughout the economy."
Chairman Bernanke went on to observe in a footnote in his prepared remarks from that testimony:
"The Federal Reserve's recently completed securities purchase program has changed the average maturity of Treasury securities held by the public only modestly, suggesting that such an effect likely did not contribute substantially to the reduction in Treasury yields. Rather, the more important channel of effect was the removal of Treasury securities from the market, which reduced Treasury yields generally while inducing private investors to hold alternative assets (the portfolio reallocation effect). The substitution into alternative assets raised their prices and lowered their yields, easing overall financial conditions."
In a similar way, the maturity extension program—dubbed "Operation Twist" by some—announced by the Federal Open Market Committee last week is designed to further remove longer-term Treasury securities from the market, a move that, other things being equal, should put downward pressure on longer-term rates. Jim Hamilton at Econbrowser has taken a stab at estimating the effects and concludes that it is likely to be modest. Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart shared a similar sentiment, described in more detail later in this posting, in a speech earlier this week.
So what share of outstanding marketable long-term Treasury securities (excluding those held to maturity on government accounts) does the Federal Reserve hold? The following chart shows that the Fed's share of marketable long-term securities with more than five years to maturity increased substantially as a result of the $600 billion asset purchase program between November 2010 and June 2011 (see the chart). This large run-up confirms the point made by Chairman Bernanke that this program removed a considerable supply of longer-term securities from the market (relative to what it would have been otherwise).
The new maturity extension program will replace $400 billion of shorter-dated Treasury securities that the Fed holds with an equal face-value amount of longer-term securities, and this move will further increase the Fed's relative holdings of marketable longer-term Treasury securities. As President Lockhart noted in his speech, the impact of this program cannot be known precisely, but he expects it to have a modest, positive influence:
"The Fed's maturity extension program and additional mortgage-backed securities purchases are meant to further ease financial conditions ceteris paribus, other things being equal. Of course, other things almost certainly will not stay equal, and other factors will influence what really happens to rates and spreads as policy intent encounters the real world….
"In my view, the maturity extension program along with the MBS purchases represents a measured, incremental attempt to add more support to the recovery. It's not a fix for everything that ails the economy, but it should help."
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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September 08, 2011
Another cut at the postrecession job picture
There is not much to be said about the August employment report released last Friday—or not much good, anyway. The ongoing updates at Calculated Risk provide a chronicle of the questions and challenges that have characterized the postrecession period. An exhaustive set of graphs are spread across several posts, here, here, and here. The last post in the series focused on construction employment specifically and includes this observation, which is based on the addition of 26,000 construction jobs in 2011 through August:
"After five consecutive years of job losses for residential construction (and four years for total construction), this is a baby step in the right direction. However there will not be a strong increase in residential construction until the excess supply of housing is absorbed."
Given the likely pace of turnaround in the housing market, that sounds like a problem. It is not much surprise that employment in the construction sector is, and likely will continue to be, significantly weaker than it was before the recession. Can the same be said of most other sectors? The following chart shows pre- and postrecession, cross-sector average monthly changes in payroll employment, broadly defined according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' classifications. For reference, the size of the circles in the chart reflect the relative prerecession size of the sector in terms of employment.
A few points:
- The 45-degree line represents points where average monthly employment changes before the recession (from December 2001 through November 2007, precisely) are exactly the same as the average changes after the recession (July 2009 through August 2011). Consistent with the slow pace of overall employment growth during this recovery, the majority of circles representing different sectors lie below the 45-degree line.
- In general, the pattern of circles is such that those sectors with relatively high employment changes prerecession are those that have exhibited relatively high changes during the recovery. In other words, we have not yet seen a widespread reshuffling of cross-sectoral employment trends outside of the recession. For example, employment changes in the education and health care sector led the pack before the recession, and that sector has led the pack thus far in the recovery. At the opposite end of the scale, job growth in the information sector has remained on a negative trend in the recovery period, just as it was prior to the recession.
- I want to note a few exceptions to the preceding observation, which discusses the sectors with relatively high employment changes before the recession being the same ones that exhibited relatively high changes during the recovery. As noted, employment in the construction sector is well off its prerecession pace. What may be less appreciated is the fact that manufacturing employment, outside of the motor vehicles and auto parts sector, has experienced monthly employment gains that are better than the prerecession rate. Employment in the government sector, on the other hand, has noticeably flipped from positive to negative. This shift is also true of job growth in the financial activities sector, though the change is less dramatic than in the government sector.
Manufacturing and government represent relatively big shares of employment. Including motor vehicles and parts, manufacturing payroll employment was over 11 percent of total U.S. jobs for the period from 2002 through 2007. Government employment was about 16.5 percent (and had the largest single share of sectoral employment in the breakdown used in the chart above). The bad news in the big picture is that the better performance in manufacturing job creation is really a shift from negative job creation in the prerecession period to zero job creation in the postrecession period. And as for government employment, it seems unlikely that the forces will soon align to move job growth in the public sector back into positive territory. (The same could probably be said of financial activities employment.)
I am not pushing any particular interpretation of these facts, but a couple of questions come to mind. Will non-auto manufacturing employment revert to the contracting trend in place prior to the recession? Will employment in the financial activities and government sectors continue to shrink? If so, will these jobs be absorbed by increased employment in other sectors, and how long will that take?
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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September 01, 2011
The pull between spending and saving
In a speech on Wednesday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart talked about how the economic outlook is being shaped by the process of deleveraging (reducing debt and increasing saving) that is occurring in the economy.
By way of background, President Lockhart emphasized the important role that some amount of debt plays in economic growth: while difficult to measure precisely, research suggests that debt levels that get high enough are associated with extended periods of subpar economic growth.
"Debt is not in and of itself a bad thing. Debt supports economic growth by allowing households, businesses, and governments to smooth their spending and investment over time. Borrowing and lending can help facilitate the allocation of capital to productive uses in the economy. But high debt levels can also result in lower economic growth, a point that Stephen Cecchetti, of the Bank for International Settlements, made in a paper presented at the Kansas City Fed's symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last week."
Relative to the 1990s, the last decade witnessed a surge in borrowing by the nonfinancial sector (comprising households, nonfinancial businesses and governments). Indeed, as President Lockhart noted:
"Relative to the size of the U.S. economy measured in terms of GDP, the total domestic debt of nonfinancial sectors of the economy reached 248 percent in 2009, increasing by almost 75 percentage points over the previous decade alone."
While no longer growing, the overall debt position of the nonfinancial sector has barely declined since peaking in 2009.
How did we get to this point? Much of the increase in total debt during the 2000s was in the form of real estate debt, and most of that was by households and unincorporated businesses (mostly sole proprietorships and partnerships). During the 1990s the mortgage debt of households was relatively stable at around 45 percent of GDP, but it increased to a peak of 76 percent of GDP in 2009. Over the same period, mortgage debt for unincorporated businesses increased from around 12 percent of GDP to almost 20 percent.
Because real estate is relatively expensive, it is not surprising that mortgage debt heavily influences the overall debt burden of individuals. Rapidly rising home values from the late 1990s to 2006 supported the notion that housing was a good asset to purchase…until it wasn't. According to the S&P Case-Shiller national home price index, home values have declined by more than 30 percent from their peak in 2006, after having increased by more than 150 percent compared with the previous decade.
From their peak in 2009, debt levels for households and unincorporated businesses have declined relative to GDP notably by a combined 15 percentage points. Reduced mortgage debt accounted for three quarters of that decline. As President Lockhart notes, repairing the balance sheet of the household sector, just as it does for businesses, can occur through some combination of debt reduction and increased savings.
"Household deleveraging has occurred mostly through a combination of increased savings, debt repayment, and also debt forgiveness. At the same time, there has generally been less access to credit for households as a result of stricter underwriting standards. The inability to qualify for home equity loans and other forms of credit has slowed the pace at which new debt is taken on by households replacing paid-down debt. The effect is to reduce their debt burden over time."
In contrast to households and unincorporated businesses, the amount of debt owed by the nonfinancial corporate sector has not declined very much since 2009. Nonfinancial corporations increased borrowing during the second half of the 2000s. But most of the debt growth was from increased issuance of corporate bonds. Since its historical peak in 2009, the total debt of the nonfinancial corporate sector has remained at around 50 percent of GDP, as continued bond issuance has largely offset declines in other types of corporate borrowing.
If individuals are aggressively reducing their debt burden, and corporations haven't increased their overall borrowing, why hasn't the overall debt burden of the nonfinancial sector of the economy declined since 2009? The primary reason is that the amount of federal government debt has increased sharply in recent years—from 35 percent of GDP in 2007 to about 65 percent of GDP in early 2011.
As President Lockhart observes:
"While the private sector—households and businesses—has made notable progress in lowering its debt burden, discussions of how to reduce public debt have only just begun. The government still needs to introduce major policy changes to put public debt on a sustainable path. Demographic trends, which I referenced earlier, will make public debt reduction even more challenging."
How long will the deleveraging process take to play out? I'm pretty confident that nobody really knows precisely, but President Lockhart suggests that we may be closer to the beginning of the process than the end:
"Rebalancing simply takes time. A 2010 report by McKinsey surveyed 32 international periods of deleveraging following financial crises and found that, on average, the duration of these episodes was about six and a half years. U.S. debt to GDP peaked in the first quarter of 2009. So, by that standard we are much closer to the beginning than the end of our deleveraging process."
Lockhart also makes the point that this necessary structural adjustment has consequences for the medium-term outlook:
"When economies are deleveraging they cannot grow as rapidly as they might otherwise. It is obvious as consumers reduce spending they divert more of their incomes to paying off debt. This shift in consumer behavior increases the amount of capital available for financing investment. But higher rates of business investment are not likely to fully offset weakness in consumer spending for some time, as businesses continue to grapple with uncertainties about the future."
From a monetary policy perspective, slower growth as a result of deleveraging raises important challenges:
"To my mind, it's becoming increasingly clear the challenge we policymakers face is balancing appropriate policy responses for the near to medium term with what's needed for the longer term. In other words, we must continue to help the economy achieve a healthy enough cyclical recovery, especially with unemployment high and consumer spending lackluster. At the same time, we must recognize the longer-term need for directionally opposite structural adjustments, including deleveraging."
How does President Lockhart size up the role of monetary policy in this context?
"Given the weak data we've seen recently and considering the rising concern about chronic slow growth or worse, I don't think any policy option can be ruled out at the moment. However, it is important that monetary policy not be seen as a panacea. The kinds of structural adjustments I've been discussing today take time, and I am acutely aware that pushing beyond what monetary policy can plausibly deliver runs the risk of creating new distortions and imbalances.
"We may find, as economic circumstances evolve, that policy adjustments are required. In more adverse scenarios, further policy accommodation might be called for. But as of today, I am comfortable with the current stance of policy, especially considering the tensions policy must navigate between the short and long term and between recovery and the need for longer-term structural adjustments."
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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