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April 17, 2015
Déjà Vu All Over Again
In a recent interview, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said, “The first quarter was poor. That seems to be a new seasonal pattern. It's been that way for about four of the last five years.”
The picture below illustrates the vice chair's sentiment. Output in the first quarter has grown at a paltry 0.6 percent during the past five years, compared to a 2.9 percent average during the remaining three quarters of the year.
What's causing this pattern? Well, it could be we just get really unlucky at the same time every year. Or, it could be a more technical problem with seasonal adjustment after the Great Recession (this paper by Jonathan Wright covers the topic using payroll data). It also seems likely that we can just blame the weather (see this Wall Street Journal blog post).
Whatever the reason for the first-quarter weakness, it appears to be happening again. Our current quarterly tracking estimate—GDPNow—has first-quarter growth hovering just above zero. As for the rest of the year, we'll have to wait and see. We of course hope it follows the postrecession pattern.
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April 06, 2015
Is Measurement Error a Likely Explanation for the Lack of Productivity Growth in 2014?
Over the past three years nonfarm business sector labor productivity growth has averaged only around 0.75 percent—well below historical norms. In 2014 it was negative, as can be seen in chart 1.
The previous macroblog post by Atlanta Fed economist John Robertson looked at possible economic explanations for why the labor productivity data, taken at face value, have been relatively weak in recent years. In this post I look at the extent to which “measurement error” can account for the weakness we have seen in the data. By measurement error, I mean incomplete data and/or sampling errors that are reduced when more comprehensive data are available several years later. I do not mean the inherent difficulties in measuring productivity in sectors such as health care or information technology.
As seen in chart 1, negative four-quarter productivity growth rates have been quite infrequent in nonrecessionary periods since 1948. In S. Borağan Aruoba's 2008 Journal of Money, Credit and Banking article “Data Revisions Are Not Well Behaved,” he found that initial estimates of annual productivity growth are negatively correlated with subsequent revisions. That is, low productivity growth rates tend to be revised up while high rates tend to be revised down. This is illustrated in chart 2.
In each of the panels, points in the scatterplot represent an initial estimate of fourth-quarter over fourth-quarter productivity growth together with a revised estimate published either one or three years later. For example, the green points in each plot show estimates of productivity growth over the four quarters ending in the fourth quarter of 2011. In each plot, the x-coordinate shows the March 7, 2012, estimate of this growth rate (0.3 percent). The y-coordinate of the green dot in chart 2a shows the March 7, 2013, estimate of fourth-quarter 2011/fourth-quarter 2010 productivity growth (0.4 percent) while the y-coordinate of the green dot in chart 2b shows the March 5, 2015, estimate (0.0 percent).
In each chart, the red dashed line shows the predicted revised value of productivity growth as a function of the early estimate (using a simple linear regression). Chart 2a shows that, on average, we would expect almost no revision to the most recent estimate of four-quarter productivity growth one year later. Chart 2b, however, shows that low initial estimates of productivity growth tend to be revised up three years later while high estimates tend to be revised down. Based on this regression line, the current estimate of -0.1 percent fourth-quarter 2014/fourth-quarter 2013 productivity growth is expected to be revised up to 0.3 percent by April 2018.
The intuition for this is fairly straightforward. Low productivity growth could come about from either underestimating output growth, overestimating growth in hours worked, or a combination of the two. Which of these is most likely to occur, according to historical revisions? This is shown in chart 3, which plots the predicted revisions to four-quarter nonfarm employment growth and four-quarter nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth conditional on two assumed values for the initial estimate of four-quarter productivity growth: 0 percent (low) and 4 percent (high).
Nominal GDP is used instead of real GDP as methodological changes to the latter (e.g., the introduction of chain-weighting starting in 1996) make an apples-to-apples comparison of pre- and post-revised values difficult. Using fourth-quarter over fourth-quarter growth rates since 1981, the diamonds on the solid lines in chart 3 show that an initial estimate of 0 percent productivity growth would, on average, be associated with a three-year upward revision of 0.39 percentage point to four-quarter nominal GDP growth and a three-year downward revision of 0.10 percentage point to four-quarter nonfarm payroll employment.
With 4 percent productivity growth, the diamonds on the dashed lines show predicted three-year revisions to nominal GDP growth and employment growth of -0.40 percentage point and 0.14 percentage point, respectively. As the chart shows, these estimates are sensitive to the sample period used to predict the revisions. Using only data since 1989 (not shown), the regression would not predict a downward revision to employment growth conditional on an initial estimate of 0 percent productivity growth. Overall, however, the plot suggests that revisions to output growth are more sensitive to initial estimates of productivity growth than revisions to payroll employment growth are. This is consistent with the sentiments expressed by Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart at the March 30–April 1 Financial Markets Conference that employment or unemployment data may be more reliably measured than GDP.
Nevertheless, according to charts 2 and 3, the importance of measurement error in productivity growth is fairly modest. Ex-ante, we should not expect last year's puzzlingly low productivity growth simply to be revised away.
Editor's note: Upon request, the programming code and data for charts used in this macroblog post is available from the author.
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September 15, 2014
The Changing State of States' Economies
Timely data on the economic health of individual states recently came from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The new quarterly state-level gross domestic product (GDP) series begins in 2005 and runs through the fourth quarter of 2013. The map below offers a look at how states have fared since 2005 relative to the economic performance of the nation as a whole.
It’s interesting to see the map depict an uneven expansion between the second quarter of 2005 and the peak of the cycle in the fourth quarter of 2007. By the fourth quarter of 2008, most parts of the country were experiencing declines in GDP.
The U.S. economy hit a trough during the second quarter of 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but 20 states and the District of Columbia recovered more quickly than the rest. The continued progress is easy to see, as is the far-reaching impact of the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, which disrupted economic activity in many U.S. states. By the fourth quarter of 2013, only two states—Mississippi and Minnesota—experienced negative GDP.
The map shows that not all states are growing even when overall GDP is growing, and not all states are shrinking even when overall GDP is shrinking. But if we want to know more about which states are driving the change in overall GDP growth, then the geographic size of the state might not be so important.
Depicting states scaled to the size of their respective economies provides another perspective, because it’s the relative size of a state’s economy that matters when considering the contribution of state-level GDP growth to the national economy. The following chart uses bubbles (sized by the size of the state’s economy) to depict changes in states’ real GDP from the second quarter of 2005 through the fourth quarter of 2013.
This chart shows how the economies of larger states such as California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois have an outsize influence on the national economy, despite some having a smaller geographic footprint. (Conversely, changes in the relatively small economy of a geographically large state like Montana have a correspondingly small impact on changes in the national economy.)
Overall GDP is now well above its prerecession peak. But have all states also fully recovered their GDP losses? The chart below depicts the cumulative GDP growth in each state from the end of 2007 to the end of 2013. The size of the circle represents the magnitude of the change in the level of real GDP between the end of 2007 and 2013. Most states have fully recovered in terms of GDP. (North Dakota’s spectacular growth stands out, thanks to its boom in the oil and gas industry.) However, Florida, Nevada, Connecticut, Arizona, New Jersey, and Michigan had not returned to their prerecession spending levels as of the end of 2013. For Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, the depth of the collapse in those states’ booming housing sectors is almost certainly responsible for the relative shortfall in performance since 2007.
The next release of the state-level GDP data, scheduled for September 26, will provide insight into the relative performance of state economies during the first quarter of 2014 at a time when overall GDP shrank by more than 2 percent (annualized rate). Some analysts have suggested that weather disruptions were a leading cause for that decline. The state-level GDP data will help tell the story.
By Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the the Atlanta Fed's research department
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August 21, 2014
Seeking the Source
As the early data on the third quarter begin to roll in, the (very tentative) conclusion is that nothing we know yet contradicts the consensus gross domestic product (GDP) forecast (from the Blue Chip panel, for example) of seasonally adjusted annualized Q3 growth in the neighborhood of 3 percent. The latest from our GDPNow model:
The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the third quarter of 2014 was 3.0 percent on August 19, up from 2.8 percent on August 13. The nowcast for inventory investment ticked up following the Federal Reserve's industrial production release on August 15 while the nowcast for residential investment growth increased following this morning's new residential construction release from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The contribution of residential investment is obviously welcome, but the inventory contribution in the industrial production release tilts in the direction of one of our concerns about growth performance in the second quarter. Specifically, too much inventory spending, too little "core" spending.
On the plus side, our projections for current-quarter investment spending have been increasing, outside of nonresidential structures. On the much less positive side, the nowcast for consumer spending has been falling off and currently looks to expand at a pace barely above 2 percent.
Weakness over the course of this recovery in the key GDP expenditure components of consumer spending and investment has been the subject of a lot of commentary, recent entries being provided by Jonathon McCarthy (on the former, at Liberty Street Economics) and Jim Hamilton (on the latter, at Econbrowser). McCarthy in particular points to less-than-robust consumption expenditure as a source of growth since the end of the recession that has been slower than hoped for:
One contributor to the subdued pace of economic growth in this expansion has been consumer spending. Even though consumption growth has been somewhat stronger in the past couple of quarters, it has still been weak in this expansion relative to previous expansions.
An earlier version of the McCarthy theme appeared in this post on Atif Mian and Amir Sufi's House of Debt blog:
...the primary culprit: consumption of services and non-durable goods. They are shockingly weak relative to other recoveries.
There is something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum in all of this discussion. Has GDP growth disappointed because consumer and business spending has been lackluster? Or has consumer and business spending been weaker than we expected because GDP growth has lagged the pace of past recoveries?
In fact, the growth rates of consumption expenditure and business fixed investment—which excludes the residential housing piece—have not been particularly unusual over the course of this recovery once you account for the pace of GDP growth.
The following charts illustrate the average contributions of consumption and investment spending as a percent of average GDP growth for the 20 quarters following six of the last seven U.S. recessions. (I have excluded the period following the 1969–70 recession because 20 quarters after that downturn include the entirety of the 1973–75 recession.)
It is worth noting that these observations also apply to the components of consumption (across services, durables, and nondurables) and business fixed investment (across equipment and intellectual property and structures), as the following two charts show:
The conclusion is that if growth in consumption and investment has been particularly tepid over the course of the recovery, it merely reflects the historically tepid growth in GDP.
Or the other way around. These charts represent nothing more than arithmetic exercises, a mechanical decomposition of GDP growth into couple of the spending components that make up to the whole. They tell us nothing about causation.
What we have is the same too-full bag of possible explanations for why GDP has not yet returned to levels that—before the financial crisis—we would have associated with "potential": too much regulation, too little lending, excessive uncertainty, not enough government-driven demand, and so on. Maybe more investment spending would cause more growth. Maybe not.
In the language of the hot topic of the moment, this ultimately takes us to the debate over secular stagnation—what does it mean, does it exist, what is its cause if it does exist? Steve Williamson provides a useful summary of the debate, which is not yet at the point of providing actual answers. And unfortunately, the answers really matter.
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July 21, 2014
GDP Growth: Will We Find a Higher Gear?
We are still more than a week away from receiving the advance report for U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) from April through June. Based on what we know to date, second-quarter growth will be a large improvement over the dismal performance seen during the first three months of this year. As of today, our GDPNow model is reading an annualized second-quarter growth rate at 2.7 percent. Given that the economy declined by 2.9 percent in the first quarter, the prospects for the anticipated near-3 percent growth for 2014 as a whole look pretty dim.
The first-quarter performance was dominated, of course, by unusual circumstances that we don't expect to repeat: bad weather, a large inventory adjustment, a decline in real exports, and (especially) an unexpected decline in health services expenditures. Though those factors may mean a disappointing growth performance for the year as a whole, we will likely be willing to write the first quarter off as just one of those things if we can maintain the hoped-for 3 percent pace for the balance of the year.
Do the data support a case for optimism? We have been tracking the six-month trends in four key series that we believe to be especially important for assessing the underlying momentum in the economy: consumer spending (real personal consumption expenditures, or real PCE) excluding medical services, payroll employment, manufacturing production, and real nondefense capital goods shipments excluding aircraft.
The following charts give some sense of how things are stacking up. We will save the details for those who are interested, but the idea is to place the recent performance of each series, given its average growth rate and variability since 1990, in the context of GDP growth and its variability over that same period.
What do we learn from the foregoing charts? Three out of four of these series appear to be consistent with an underlying growth rate in the range of 3 percent. Payroll employment growth, in fact, is beginning to send signals of an even stronger pace.
Unfortunately, the series that looks the weakest relates to consumer spending. If we put any stock in some pretty basic economic theory, spending by households is likely the most forward-looking of the four measures charted above. That, to us, means a cautious attitude is the still the appropriate one. Or, to quote from a higher Atlanta Fed power:
... it will likely be hard to confirm a shift to a persistent above-trend pace of GDP growth even if the second-quarter numbers look relatively good.
This experience suggests to me that we can misread the vital signs of the economy in real time. Notwithstanding the mostly positive and encouraging character of recent data, we policymakers need to be circumspect when tempted to drop the gavel and declare the case closed. In the current situation, I feel it's advisable to accrue evidence and gain perspective. It will take some time to validate an outlook that assumes above-trend growth and associated solid gains in employment and price stability.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director, and
Pat Higgins, a senior economist, both in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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July 10, 2014
Introducing the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow Forecasting Model
The June 18 statement from the Federal Open Market Committee opened with this (emphasis mine):
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April indicates that growth in economic activity has rebounded in recent months.... Household spending appears to be rising moderately and business fixed investment resumed its advance, while the recovery in the housing sector remained slow. Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing.
I highlighted the business fixed investment (BFI) part of that passage because it contracted at an annual rate of 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Any substantial turnaround in growth in gross domestic product (GDP) from its dismal first-quarter pace would seem to require that BFI did in fact resume its advance through the second quarter.
We won't get an official read on BFI—or on real GDP growth and all of its other components—until July 30, when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) releases its advance (or first) GDP estimates for the second quarter of 2014. But that doesn't mean we are completely in the dark on what is happening in real time. We have enough data in hand to make an informed statistical guess on what that July 30 number might tell us.
The BEA's data-construction machinery for estimating GDP is laid out in considerable detail in its NIPA Handbook. Roughly 70 percent of the advance GDP release is based on source data from government agencies and other data providers that are available prior to the BEA official release. This information provides the basis for what have become known as "nowcasts" of GDP and its major subcomponents—essentially, real-time forecasts of the official numbers the BEA is likely to deliver.
Many nowcast variants are available to the public: the Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, the Philadelphia Fed Survey of Professional Forecasters, and the CNBC Rapid Update, for example. In addition, a variety of proprietary nowcasts are available to subscribers, including Aspen Publishers' Blue Chip Publications, Macroeconomic Advisers GDP Tracking, and Moody's Analytics high-frequency model.
With this macroblog post, we introduce the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's own nowcasting model, which we call GDPNow.
GDPNow will provide nowcasts of GDP and its subcomponents on a regularly updated basis. These nowcasts will be available on the pages of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Quantitative Economic Research (CQER).
A few important notes about GDPNow:
- The GDPNow model forecasts are nonjudgmental, meaning that the forecasts are taken directly from the underlying statistical model. (These are not official forecasts of either the Atlanta Fed or its president, Dennis Lockhart.)
- Because nowcasts are often based on both modeling and judgment, there is no reason to expect that GDPNow will agree with alternative forecasts. And we do not intend to present GDPNow as superior to those alternatives. Different approaches have their pluses and minuses. An advantage of our approach is that, because it is nonjudgmental, our methodology is easily replicable. But it is always wise to avoid reliance on a single model or source of information.
- GDPNow forecasts are subject to error, sometimes substantial. Internally, we've regularly produced nowcasts from the GDPNow model since introducing an earlier version of it in an October 2011 macroblog post. A real-time track record for the model nowcasts just before the BEA's advance GDP release is available on the CQER GDPNow webpage, and will be updated on a regular basis to help users make informed decisions about the use of this tool.
So, with that in hand, does it appear that BFI in fact "resumed its advance" last quarter? The table below shows the current GDPNow forecasts:
We will update the nowcast five to six times each month following the releases of certain key economic indicators listed in the frequently asked questions. Look for the next GDPNow update on July 15, with the release of the retail trade and business inventory reports.
If you want to dig deeper, the GDPNow page includes downloadable charts and tables as well as numerical details including the model's nowcasts for GDP, its subcomponents, and how the subcomponent nowcasts are built up from both the underlying source data and the model parameters. This working paper supplies the model's technical documentation. We hope economy watchers find GDPNow to be a useful addition to their information sets.
By Pat Higgins, a senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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August 30, 2013
Still Waiting for Takeoff...
On Thursday, we got a revised look at the economy’s growth rate in the second quarter. While the 2.5 percent annualized rate was a significant upward revision from the preliminary estimate, it comes off a mere 1.1 percent growth rate in the first quarter. That combines for a subpar first-half growth rate of 1.8 percent. OK, it’s growth, but not as strong as one would expect for a U.S. expansion and clearly a disappointment to the many forecasters who had once (again) expected this to be the year the U.S. economy shakes itself out of the doldrums.
Now, we’re not blind optimists when it comes to the record of economic forecasts. We know well that the evidence says you shouldn’t get overly confident in your favorite economists’ prediction. Most visions of the economy’s future have proven to be blurry at best.
Still, we at the Atlanta Fed want to know how to best interpret this upward revision to the second-quarter growth estimate and how it affects our president’s baseline forecast “for a pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013, with a further step-up in economic activity as we move into 2014.”
What we can say about the report is that the revised second-quarter growth estimate is a decided improvement from the first quarter and a modest bump up from the recent four-quarter growth trend (1.6 percent). And there are some positive indicators within the GDP components. For example, real exports posted a strong turnaround last quarter, presumably benefiting from Europe’s emerging from its recession. And the negative influence of government spending cuts, while still evident in the data, was much smaller than during the previous two quarters. Oh, and business investment spending improved between the first and second quarters.
All good, but these data simply give us a better fix on where we were in the second quarter, not necessarily a good signal of where we are headed. To that we turn to our “nowcast” estimate for the third quarter based on the incoming monthly data (the evolution of which is shown in the table below).
A "nowcasting" exercise generates quarterly GDP estimates in real time. The technical details of this exercise are described here, but the idea is fairly simple. We use incoming data on 100-plus economic series to forecast 12 components of GDP for the current quarter. We then aggregate those forecasts of GDP components to get a current-quarter estimate of overall GDP growth.
We caution that unlike others, our nowcast involves no interpretation whatsoever of these data. In what is purely a statistical exercise, we let the data do all the speaking for themselves.
Given the first data point of July—the July jobs report—the nowcast for the third quarter was pretty bleak (1.1 percent). Things improved a few days later with the release of strong international trade data for June, and stepped up further with the June wholesale trade report. But the remainder of the recent data point to a third-quarter growth rate that is very close to the lackluster performance of the first half.
In his speech a few weeks ago, President Dennis Lockhart indicated what he was looking for as drivers for stronger growth in the second half of this year.
“I expect consumer activity to strengthen.”
Today’s read on real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) probably isn’t bolstering confidence in that view. Real PCE was virtually flat in July, undermining private forecasters’ expectation of a moderate gain. Our nowcast for real GDP slipped down 0.5 percentage points to 1.4 percent on the basis of this data, and pegged consumer spending at 1.7 percent for Q3—in line with Q2’s 1.8 percent gain.
“I expect business investment to accelerate somewhat.”
The July data were pretty disappointing on this score. The durable-goods numbers released a few days ago were quite weak, causing our nowcast, and those of the others we follow, to revise down the third-quarter growth estimate.
“I expect the rebound we have seen in the housing sector to continue.”
Check. Our nowcast wasn’t affected much by the housing starts data, but the existing sales numbers produced a positive boost to the estimate. Our nowcast’s estimate of residential investment growth in the third quarter is well under what we saw in the second quarter. But at 5.3 percent, the rebound looks to be continuing.
“I expect the recent improvement in exports to last.”
Unfortunately, the July trade numbers don’t get reported until next week. So we’re going to mark this one as missing in action. But as we said earlier, that June trade number was strong enough to cause our third-quarter nowcast to be revised up a bit.
“And I expect to see an easing of the public-sector spending drag at the federal, state, and local levels.”
Again, check. The July Treasury data indicated growth in government spending overall.
So the July data are a mixed bag: some positives, some disappointments, and some missing-in-actions. But if President Lockhart were to ask us (and something tells us he just might), we’re likely to say that on the basis of the July indicators, the “pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013” isn’t yet very evident in the data.
This news isn’t likely to come as a big surprise to him. Again, here’s what he said publicly two weeks ago:
When I weigh the balance of risks around the medium-term outlook I laid out, I have some concerns about the potential for ambiguous or disappointing data. I also think that it is important to be realistic about the degree to which we are likely to have clarity in the near term about the direction of the economy. Both the quantity of information and the strength of the signal conveyed by the data will likely be limited. As of September, the FOMC will have in hand one more employment report, two reports on inflation, a revision to the second-quarter GDP data, and preliminary incoming signals about growth in the third quarter. I don't expect to have enough data to be sure of my outlook.
It’s still a little early to say with any confidence we won’t eventually see a pickup this quarter, and we can hope that the incoming August numbers show a more marked improvement. All we can say at this point is that after seeing most of the July data, it still feels like we’re stuck on the tarmac.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Patrick Higgins, senior economist, and
Brent Meyer, economist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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June 28, 2012
Young versus mature small firms seeking credit
The ongoing tug of war between credit supply and demand issues facing small businesses is captured in this piece in the American Prospect by Merrill Goozner. Goozner asks whether small businesses are facing a tougher borrowing environment than is warranted by current economic conditions. One of the potential factors identified in the article is the relative decline in the number of community banks—down some 1,124 (or 13 percent of all banks from 2007). Community banks have traditionally been viewed as an important source of local financing for businesses and are often thought to be better able to serve the needs of small businesses than large national banks because of their more intimate knowledge of the business and the local community.
The Atlanta Fed's poll of small business can shed some light on this issue. In April we reached out to small businesses across the Sixth Federal Reserve District to ask about financing applications, how satisfied firms were that their financing needs were being met, and general business conditions. About one third of the 419 survey participants applied for credit in the first quarter of 2012, submitting between two and three applications for credit on average. As we've seen in past surveys (the last survey was in October 2011), the most common place to apply for credit was at a bank.
For the April 2012 survey, the table below shows the average success of firms applying to various financing sources (on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 meaning none of the amount requested in the application was obtained, and 4 meaning that the firm received the full amount applied for). The table also shows the median age of businesses applying for each type of financing.
The results in the table show that for credit applications, Small Business Administration loan requests and applications for loans/lines of credit from large national banks tended to be the least successful, whereas applications for vendor trade credit and commercial loans/line-of-credit from community banks had the highest average success rating.
Notably, firms applying for credit at large national banks were typically much younger than firms applying at regional or community banks. If younger firms generally have more difficulty in getting credit regardless of where they apply, it could explain why we saw less success, on average, among firms applying at larger banks.
To investigate this issue, we compared the average application success among young firms (less than six years old) that applied at both regional or community banks and at large national banks, pooling the responses from the last few years of our survey. The credit quality of borrowers is controlled for by looking only at firms that applied at both types of institutions. What we found was no significant difference in the average borrowing success of young firms applying for credit across bank type—it just does seem to be tougher to get your credit needs met at a bank if you're running a young business. Interestingly, we also found that more mature firms were significantly more successful when applying at regional or community banks than at large national banks—it seems to be relatively easier for an established small business to obtain requested credit from a small bank.
While this analysis did not control for other factors that could also affect the likelihood of borrowing success, the results do suggest that Goozner's question about the impact of declining community bank numbers on small business lending is relevant. If small businesses are generally more successful when seeking credit from a small bank, will an ongoing reduction in the number of community banks substantially affect the ability of (mature) small businesses to get credit? More detailed insights from the April 2012 Small Business Credit Survey will be available soon on our Small Business Focus website, and we will provide an update when they are posted.
Ellyn Terry, senior economic research analyst, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
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May 17, 2012
Is inflation targeting really dead?
Harvard's Jeffrey Frankel (hat tip, Mark Thoma) is the latest econ-blogger to cast an admiring gaze in the direction of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) targeting. Frankel's post is titled "The Death of Inflation Targeting," and the demise apparently includes the notion of "flexible targeting." The obituary is somewhat ironic in that at least some of us believe that the U.S. central bank has recently taken a big step in the direction of institutionalizing flexible inflation targeting. Frankel, nonetheless, makes a case for nominal GDP targeting:
"One candidate to succeed IT [inflation targeting] as the preferred nominal monetary-policy anchor has lately received some enthusiastic support in the economic blogosphere: nominal GDP targeting. The idea is not new. It had been a candidate to succeed money-supply targeting in the 1980's, since it did not share the latter's vulnerability to so-called velocity shocks.
"Nominal GDP targeting was not adopted then, but now it is back. Its fans point out that, unlike IT, it would not cause excessive tightening in response to adverse supply shocks. Nominal GDP targeting stabilizes demand—the most that can be asked of monetary policy. An adverse supply shock is automatically divided equally between inflation and real GDP, which is pretty much what a central bank with discretion would do anyway."
That's certainly true, but a nominal GDP target is consistent with a stable inflation or price-level objective only if potential GDP growth is itself stable. Perhaps the argument is that plausible variations in potential GDP are not large enough or persistent enough to be of much concern. But that notion just begs the core question of whether the current output gap is big or small. At least for me, uncertainty about where GDP is relative to its potential remains the key to whether policy should be more or less aggressive.
In another recent blog item (also with a pointer from Mark Thoma), Simon Wren-Lewis offers the opinion that acknowledging uncertainty about size of the output gap actually argues in favor of being "less cautious" about taking an aggressive policy course. The basic idea is familiar. It is a simple matter to raise rates should the Fed overestimate the magnitude of the output gap. But with the short-term policy rates already at zero, it is not so easy to go in the opposite direction should we underestimate the gap.
No argument there. As I pointed out in a May 3 macroblog item, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said the same thing. But, as I argued in that post, this point of view is only half the story. Though I agree that the costs are asymmetric to the downside with respect to the FOMC's employment and growth mandate, they look to me to be asymmetric to the upside with respect to the price stability mandate. And I view with some suspicion the claim that we know how to easily manage policy that turns out to be too aggressive after the fact.
My issues are not merely academic. In an important paper published a decade ago, Anasthsios Orphanides made this assertion:
"Despite the best of intentions, the activist management of the economy during the 1960s and 1970s did not deliver the desired macroeconomic outcomes. Following a brief period of success in achieving reasonable price stability with full employment, starting with the end of 1965 and continuing through the 1970s, the small upward drift in prices that so concerned Burns several years earlier gave way to the Great Inﬂation. Amazingly, during much of this period, specifically from February 1970 to January 1977, Arthur Burns, who so opposed policies fostering inﬂation, served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. How then is this macroeconomic policy failure to be explained? And how can such failures be avoided in the future?...
"The likely policy lapse leading to the Great Inﬂation …can be simply identified. It was due to the overconfidence with which policymakers believed they could ascertain in real-time the current state of the economy relative to its potential. The willingness to recognize the limitations of our knowledge and lower our stabilization objectives accordingly would be essential if we are to avert such policy disasters in the future."
With this historical observation in hand, it seems a short leap to turn Wren-Lewis's thought experiment on its head. Arguably, the last several years have demonstrated that nonconventional policy actions have been quite successful at short-circuiting the disinflationary spirals that pose the central downside risk when interest rates are near zero. (If you can tolerate a little math, a good exposition of both theory and evidence is provided by Roger Farmer.)
On the opposite side of the ledger, we know little about the conditions that would cause the Fed to lose credibility with respect to its commitment to its inflation goals, and very little about the triggers that would cause inflation expectations to become unanchored. Thus, I think it not difficult to construct a plausible argument about the risks of being wrong about the output gap that is exact opposite of the Wren-Lewis conclusion.
I end up about where I did in my previous post. Flexible inflation targeting, implemented in such a way that the 2 percent long-run inflation target rate exerts an observable gravitational pull over the medium term, feels about right to me. Despite what Frankel seems to believe, I think that idea is far from dead.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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February 10, 2012
Reading the bump in inventories
Yesterday's wholesale trade report, with its positive surprise in December inventory accumulation, has estimates of fourth quarter gross domestic product (GDP) on the rise again. For the advance GDP release, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis assumed that the book value of merchant wholesale inventories rose by $17 billion (at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, or SAAR) in December. The wholesale trade report suggests the book value instead may have risen by $56 billion SAAR. Our own calculations suggest fourth quarter GDP may be revised up from 2.8 percent to around 3.1 percent. A piece of that revision comes from positive sales activity, which would appear to be an unambiguous plus.
The inventory piece is trickier. Forecasters have a tendency—because the statistics have a tendency—to take a larger-than-expected inventory buildup in one quarter out of growth estimates for the next quarter. The implication in present tense is, of course, that 2012 may start out on the slow side as the fourth quarter inventory swell is run off.
That's not how we see it. Our current read is that it is better to think of the fourth quarter inventory buildup as a payback from a decumulation in the third quarter. Here's a look at overall inventory changes over the recent past, broken down into their various industrial components:
If you look hard, you will see that, though the fourth quarter inventory rise was broad-based, the third to fourth quarter change in wholesale inventories was particularly notable. In fact, the wholesale inventory picture in the back half of 2011 was dominated by a fairly large decumulation of nondurable goods inventories in the third quarter, a decline that was reversed in the last three months of the year:
In the background of those details are some pretty nonthreatening-looking inventory-sales ratios:
So, consider two stories that might frame thinking about the role of inventories in GDP growth in the first quarter or first half of this year. One story is inventory-inflated growth in the fourth quarter of 2011, to be followed by payback in the form of a drag on production in the first quarter (or so) of 2012. Another story is that the drag actually emerged in the third quarter of last year, providing a little extra juice in the fourth quarter, with no particular consequences for the current-year growth trajectory.
Right now, it looks to us like the latter story might be the right one. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't significant risks to the outlook for domestic production, and hence inventories. For instance, although today's report on international trade in December was relatively benign in terms of fourth quarter GDP revisions, it did show a substantial further weakening in exports to the euro zone. Weaker demand from Europe will weigh on U.S. export growth. The big unknown is how weak that demand will get.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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