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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November 24, 2009
Interest rates at center stage
In case you were just yesterday wondering if interest rates could get any lower, the answer was "yes":
"The Treasury sold $44 billion of two-year notes at a yield of 0.802 percent, the lowest on record, as demand for the safety of U.S. government securities surges going into year-end."
"Demand for safety" is not the most bullish sounding phrase, and it is not intended to be. It does, in fact, reflect an important but oft-neglected interest rate fundamental: Adjusting for inflation and risk, interest rates are low when times are tough. A bit more precisely, the levels of real interest rates are tied to the growth rate of the economy. When growth is slow, rates are low.
The intuition behind this point really is pretty simple. When the economy is struggling along—when consumer spending is muted and businesses' taste for acquiring investment goods is restrained—the demand for loans sags. All else equal, interest rates fall. In the current environment, of course, that "all else equal" bit is tricky, but the latest from the Federal Reserve's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey is informative:
"In the October survey, domestic banks indicated that they continued to tighten standards and terms over the past three months on all major types of loans to businesses and households. However, the net percentages of banks that tightened standards and terms for most loan categories continued to decline from the peaks reached late last year."
Demand also appears to be quite weak:
This economic fundamental is, in my opinion, a good way to make sense of the FOMC's most recent statement:
"Demand for most major categories of loans at domestic banks reportedly continued to weaken, on balance, over the past three months."
"The Committee… continues to anticipate that economic conditions, including low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends, and stable inflation expectations, are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period."
Not everyone is buying my story, of course, and there is a growing global chorus of folk who see a policy mistake at hand:
"Germany's new finance minister has echoed Chinese warnings about the growing threat of fresh global asset price bubbles, fuelled by low US interest rates and a weak dollar.
"Wolfgang Schäuble's comments highlight official concern in Europe that the risk of further financial market turbulence has been exacerbated by the exceptional steps taken by central banks and governments to combat the crisis.
"Last weekend, Liu Mingkang, China's banking regulator, criticised the US Federal Reserve for fuelling the 'dollar carry-trade', in which investors borrow dollars at ultra-low interest rates and invest in higher-yielding assets abroad."
The fact that there is a lot of available liquidity is undeniable—the quantity of bank reserves remain on the rise:
But the quantity of bank lending is decidedly not on the rise:
There are policy options at the central bank's disposal, including raising short-term interest rates, which in current circumstances implies raising the interest paid on bank reserves. That approach would solve the problem of… what? Banks taking excess reserves and converting them into loans? That process provides the channel through which monetary policy works, and it hardly seems to be the problem. In raising interest rates paid on reserves the Fed, in my view, would risk a further slowdown in loan credit expansion and a further weakening of the economy. I suppose this slowdown would ultimately manifest itself in further downward pressure on yields across the financial asset landscape, but is this really what people want to do at this point in time?
If you ask me, it's time to get "real," pun intended—that is to ask questions about the fundamental sources of persistent low inflation and risk-adjusted interest rates (a phrase for which you may as well substitute U.S. Treasury yields). To be sure, the causes behind low Treasury rates are complex, and no responsible monetary policymaker would avoid examining the role of central bank rate decisions. But the road is going to eventually wind around to the point where we are confronted with the very basic issue that remains unresolved: Why is the global demand for real physical investment apparently out of line with patterns of global saving?
By David Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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September 01, 2009
Us and them: Reviewing central bank actions in the financial crisis
With all the focus on the financial crisis in the United States, folks in this country might sometimes lose sight of the fact that this crisis has been global in nature. To provide some perspective on the global dimensions of the crisis, we are providing a few summary indicators of financial sector performance and central bank policy responses in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Euro Area, and Canada. Based on this general review, we surmise that some of the experiences have been remarkably similar, while others appear to be quite different. To pre-empt the question: Why these four regions? The reason is simply that the data were readily available. We encourage readers to use data from other areas, and let us know what you find.
The first chart compares relative changes in monthly stock market price indices for 2005 through the end of August. During the crisis, market participants significantly reduced their exposure to risky assets, which helped push equities lower. All indices peaked in 2007, except Canada, which technically peaked in May 2008. Canada outperformed relative to the others in early 2008 but suffered proportionally similar losses thereafter. The United Kingdom, Euro Area, and Canada bottomed in February 2009 while the United States bottomed in March 2009. The Euro Area to date has experienced the strongest rebound in equities, increasing by almost 40 percent since the trough in February. However, Europe also had the largest peak-to-trough decline, almost 60 percent. Canada and the United States have jumped by about 33 percent since their respective lows in February and March, while U.K. stock prices have risen by about 30 percent since February.
The second chart compares long-term government yields. As the crisis unfolded in late 2007, yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries sank as global flight to quality helped push yields lower. Yields on U.S., U.K., and Canadian bonds have all moved lower than they were prior to the onset of the crisis. Interestingly, in the Euro Area, prior to the crisis, sovereign yields were at or below bond yields in the other countries but are now slightly above those. In fact, Euro Area yields haven't moved much since the beginning of the crisis in late 2007.
The third chart contrasts monetary policy rates in the four regions. The chart shows that all the central banks lowered rates aggressively, but there are some subtle differences in the timing. For the United Kingdom, Euro Area, and Canada, the bulk of policy rate cuts came after the financial market turmoil accelerated in the fall of 2008, whereas in the United States the majority of the cuts came earlier.
The Fed was the first to lower rates, cutting the fed funds rate by 50 basis points in September 2007 at the onset of the crisis. The Fed continued to lower rates pretty aggressively through April 2008, with a cumulative reduction of 325 basis points. Once the financial turmoil accelerated again in the fall of 2008 the Fed cut rates again by another 200 basis points.
The Bank of Canada's cuts followed a generally similar timing pattern to the Fed but with differences in the relative magnitude of the cuts. In particular, the Bank of Canada rate lowered rates by 150 basis points through April 2008 and then by another 275 basis points since September 2008.
Similarly, the Bank of England cut rates three times in late 2007/early 2008, totaling 75 basis points. But like the Bank of Canada, the bulk of their policy rate cuts didn't come until the increased financial turmoil in the fall of 2008. Between September 2008 and March 2009, the Bank of England cut the policy rate by 450 basis points.
Unlike the other central banks, the European Central Bank (ECB) did not initially adjust policy rates down as the crisis emerged in late 2007. In fact, after holding rates steady for several months it increased its rate from 4 percent to 4.25 percent in July 2008. It started cutting rates in October 2008, and from October 2008 to May 2009 the ECB reduced its refinancing rate by 325 basis points. Of the four regions, the ECB currently has the highest policy rate at 1 percent. For some speculation about the future of monetary policy rates for a broader set of countries, see this recent article from The Economist.
The final chart compares relative changes in the size of balance sheets across the four central banks. The balance sheet changes might be viewed as an indication of the relative aggressiveness of nonstandard policy actions by the central banks, noting that some of the increases can be attributed to quantitative easing monetary policy actions, some to central bank lender-of-last-resort functions, and some to targeted asset purchases.
The sharpest increases in the central bank balance sheets came in the wake of the most intense part of the financial crisis, in the fall of 2008. There had been relatively little balance sheet expansion until the fall 2008. Prior to that, the action was focused mostly on changing the composition of the asset side of the balance sheet rather than increasing its size. The size of both U.S. and U.K. balance sheets has more than doubled since before September 2008, although both are now below their peaks from late 2008. Note that in the case of the Bank of England, quantitative easing didn't begin until March 2009, and the subsequent run-up in the size of the balance sheet is much more significant than in the United States. Prior to that, the increase in the Bank of England balance sheet was associated with (sterilized) expansion of its lending facilities.
In contrast, the Bank of Canada and ECB increased their balance sheets by about 50 percent—much less than in the United Kingdom or United States. By this metric, nonstandard policy actions have been less aggressive in Canada and the Euro Area. Why these differences? This recent Reuters article provides a hypothesis that focuses on institutional differences between the Bank of England and the ECB. In a related piece, this IMF article compares the ECB and the Bank of England nonstandard policy actions.
Note: The Bank of England introduced reforms to its money market operations in May 2006, which changed the way it reports the bank's balance sheet data (see BOE note).
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist, and Mike Hammill and Courtney Nosal, both economic policy analysts, at the Atlanta Fed
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July 14, 2009
A funny thing happened update
More than a week has passed since the Regulation D changes went into effect, and it appears that the changes are having a noticeable, if not dramatic, impact on pricing in the funds market—see the updated effective funds rate chart below.
The funds rate did fall last week, and it is possible that the softening was related to an increased supply of fed funds by Federal Home Loan Banks as they sought to reduce their excess reserve balances because they no longer earned interest on those balances. But if that is in fact the explanation, the effect was not large: Fed funds are still trading in a relatively narrow range between about 5 and 40 basis points each day. Though, as the chart shows, the effective fed funds rate has drifted lower so far in July—it was at 15 basis points on Friday, July 10, down from 20 basis points on July 1. The current rate is well above the January low of 8 basis points.
Despite the large increase in supply of funds in the market that might have resulted from the Reg D change, it seems to me that the opportunity for arbitrage profits is helping keep the effective funds rate hovering in the neighborhood of the interest rate paid by the Fed to eligible institutions on their reserve balances.
By John Robertson, vice president in research at the Atlanta Fed
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July 03, 2009
A funny thing happened on the way to the federal funds market
Since the beginning of this year, the effective funds rate in the market for reserve balances has varied between zero and about 15 basis points below the interest rate the Federal Reserve pays on those reserve balances (see chart below, which runs through July 2). A vexing issue has been the fact that the interest paid on reserve balances at the Fed has not set a floor on the funds rate traded in the funds market, but rather it has acted more like a magnet (see, for example, this PrefBlog post from early this year).
On July 2, the Federal Reserve Board’s latest amendments to Regulation D (Reserve Requirement of Depository Institutions) went into effect. Included in these changes are two that could materially affect the fed funds market and that vexing gap between the fed funds market rate and the deposit rate.
The first is the authorization for correspondent banks to create Excess Balance Account (EBA) programs on behalf of their respondent financial institution clients. The second is the nullification of an exemption that allowed ineligible institutions (such as the Federal Home Loan Banks) to earn interest on their reserve balances as a result of providing reserve management services for banks.
This change is good news for the 20 or so bankers' banks that provide respondent banks, usually community banks, with services, such as managing the respondent’s reserve balances at the Fed. Prior to the change in Regulation D, a bankers' bank was required to pool all the respondent’s reserve deposits into its own reserve account. This task is a bit of a problem when excess reserves are at high levels because reserves are a bank asset that counts against regulatory capital-to-asset ratios. Partly because of this financial leverage concern, bankers’ banks have had to sell some of their respondent excess reserves into the fed funds market and earn less than the 25 basis points offered for reserve balances at the Fed. But with the change in Reg. D, they will be able to deposit respondent balances at the Fed in the EBAs, and this approach will alleviate their balance sheet pressure.
What does this change mean for the funds market? Well, one source of supply of funds will be reduced, and that should put upward pressure on the fed funds rate. That’s good news for closing the deposit/market rate spread, although it should be said that bankers’ banks represent only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of daily fed funds market activity, so the impact will probably be equally small.
The second change could be a more significant one and will tend to put downward pressure on the effective funds rate. Nine of the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBs) provide respondent banking services (like bankers’ banks) for some of their member institutions. These FHLBs had been pooling their own reserve balances with their respondents’ balances, thus earning interest on their own reserves as well. Technically, the FHLBs, like other government-sponsored enterprises, are ineligible to earn interest on their own reserve balances held at the Fed, but the FHLBs were given an exemption under the interim rule published last year, which did not distinguish between an FHLB’s own reserve balances and those of their respondents. With the amended Reg. D, the pooling of reserves will no longer be allowed. Thus, the FHLBs will not be able to earn interest on their own reserve balances.
Will this change matter to them? A look at the FHLB consolidated balance sheet suggests it could. For instance, as of Sept. 30, 2008, the FHLBs were sellers of some $94 billion of fed funds and held zero on deposit at the Fed. But as of Dec. 31, 2008, after the Fed started paying interest on reserves, the FHLBs sold only $40 billion of fed funds and held $47 billion on deposit at the Fed. In a funds market that has been experiencing relatively light volumes in 2009 year to date, the potential additional supply of dollar reserves by the FHLBs could materially affect rates in the fed funds market.
What happened when the regulation changes took effect yesterday? Well, the fed funds effective rate yesterday declined from 20 to 17 basis points. Thus, it appears the softer funding conditions expected as a result of the changes generally failed to materialize. But it still may be too early to determine the full impact of the regulation changes, and more definitive changes in trading could materialize in coming days. Fed funds market nerds stay tuned.
By John Robertson, vice president in research at the Atlanta Fed
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November 25, 2008
How should we think about the monetary transmission mechanism?
That’s always a relevant question, but it takes on some added importance in times like these when the federal funds rate—the standard policy target for the Federal Open Market Committee—approaches its lower bound of zero. The recent introduction of a policy to pay banks interest on the reserves they hold on account with the Federal Reserve—which presumably (though puzzlingly not yet operationally) puts a floor on the federal funds rate independent of how much liquidity the central banks pumps into the economy— raises the question afresh.
A week or so back, Glenn Rudebusch, associate research director at the San Francisco Fed, offered his view on this topic:
“Although the funds rate target cannot be lowered much further—and certainly not below zero—it is not the case that the Federal Reserve is necessarily 'on hold.' Indeed, the Fed has already started to employ alternative means for conducting monetary policy in order to stimulate the economy.
“There are three key strategies for a central bank to stimulate the economy when short-term interest rates are fixed at zero or near zero. The first is to attempt to lower longer-term interest rates and boost other asset prices by managing market expectations of future policy actions. Specifically, a credible public commitment to keep the funds rates low for a sustained period of time can push down expectations of future short-term interest rates and lower long-term interest rates and boost other asset prices. Such a public commitment could be unconditional, such as 'maintained for a considerable period' or it could be conditional, such as 'until financial conditions stabilize.' The FOMC made such a commitment in 2003 after the funds rate was lowered to 1 percent and the economy remained weak. With the funds rate currently quite low, the Fed may revisit this strategy. If so, there would appear to be considerable scope for such a strategy to work, as the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond yield remains around 4 percent. When the Bank of Japan promised in 2001 to keep its policy rate near zero as long as consumer prices fell, it was able to help push the rate on 10-year government securities down below 1 percent.”
Rudebusch goes on to discuss the other two strategies—worth reading and examining here at a later time—but I think it is interesting to contrast this first statement of strategy with the following, from Tobias Adrian and Hyun Song Shin (of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Princeton University, respectively):
“We find that the level of the Fed funds target is key. The Fed funds target determines other relevant short term interest rates, such as repo rates and interbank lending rates through arbitrage in the money market. As such, we may expect the Fed funds rate to be pivotal in setting short-term interest rates more generally. We find that low short-term rates are conducive to expanding balance sheets. In addition, a steeper yield curve, larger credit spreads, and lower measures of financial market volatility are conducive to expanding balance sheets. In particular, an inverted yield curve is a harbinger of a slowdown in balance sheet growth, shedding light on the empirical feature that an inverted yield curve forecasts recessions.”
That empirical feature is in fact documented by Rudebusch and John Williams. Adrian and Shin continue:
“These findings reflect the economics of financial intermediation, since the business of banking is to borrow short and lend long…
“… our results suggest that the target rate itself matters for the real economy through its role in the supply of credit and funding conditions in the capital market. As such, the target rate may have a role in the transmission of monetary policy in its own right, independent of changes in long rates.”
Interestingly, the “considerable period of time” episode referred to in the Rudebusch excerpt above coincided with an increase in long-term interest rates and a steepening of the yield curve:
So, if stimulative monetary policy is what we are after, should we be looking for lower long-term rates or higher long-term rates? Discuss.
By David Altig, senior vice president and director of research at the Atlanta Fed
Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, today’s posting will be the only macroblog posting for this week.
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September 16, 2008
The left and right of it all
What a wild day it was on Monday in U.S. and global financial markets. We heard it quipped that the problem with financial institution balance sheets is that “on the left hand side nothing is right and on the right hand side nothing is left.” This is clearly an exaggeration, but it does raise the question: What do people look at when gauging the rightness or leftness of balance sheets?
A lot of the discussion about asset quality has focused on mortgage backed securities (MBS). The size of the MBS market has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade or so—MBS issuance grew from around $500 billion in 1997 to over $2 trillion in 2007. As the name suggests, an MBS is a bond that is backed by the collateral of mortgages—either by mortgages guaranteed by Freddie Mac or similar institutions or other pools of mortgages. The MBS, or pieces of it, are then sold to investors, with the principal and interest payments on the individual mortgages used to pay investors.
Underlying the performance of MBS is the performance of mortgages themselves. Mortgage delinquency has been rising for some time, and especially for subprime mortgages.
One of the features of the U.S. financial system is that the debt of financial institutions tends to be weighted toward long-term obligations while the financing has been predominately from short-term borrowing. As the performance of the assets has deteriorated the need for liquidity has risen sharply.
The demand for cash was especially acute on Monday, as can be seen in the large intra-day variability in the federal funds market. Federal funds are the reserve balances of depository institutions held at the Federal Reserve. At times on Monday the federal funds rate traded well above the target of 2 percent before the New York desk intervened with an additional $50 billion injection of reserves. This Bloomberg news story describes Monday’s large movements in the federal funds market.
The demand for liquidity at 1 and 3 month horizons also surged, as indicated by the dollar LIBOR spread over OIS at 1 and 3 month horizons. LIBOR (the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate) is the interest rate at which banks in London are prepared to lend unsecured funds to first-class banks. As such it is a guide world-wide for the rate banks use to lend to each other. In the U.S., it is usually not far off from the fed funds rate. But after the emergence of the financial turmoil last fall the LIBOR has risen relative to the fed funds rate. The OIS (Overnight Index Swap) rate is a measure of the expected overnight fed funds rate for a specified term (1 or 3 months, for example). The LIBOR/OIS spread can be used as measure of the amount of liquidity or stress in short-term unsecured cash markets.
LIBOR spreads edged higher last week amid uncertainty about financial firms, and both spreads jumped higher on Monday and Tuesday, with both at or close to new highs.
Tuesday is another day, but some things will remain the same, including the focus of attention on the left and right of financial institution balance sheets, and the debate about the appropriate role of government in all this.
By John Robertson and Mike Hammill in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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August 26, 2008
Deep questions from Jackson Hole
If one were to judge importance by press attention, the key events of this past weekend’s annual Jackson Hole economic symposium hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City would be the bookend contributions of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s opening address and Willem Buiter’s 141 pages worth of Fed criticism. Understandable, in the former case for obvious reasons and in the latter for the grand theoretical pleasure of Buiter’s (shall we say) forthright critique and discussant Alan Blinder’s equally forthright (and witty) defense of the Fed. (The session’s tone is nicely captured in the reports of Sudeep Reddy from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg’s John Fraher and Scott Lanman.) [Broken link to the Bloomberg article fixed.]
Though Professor Buiter’s (of the London School of Economics and Political Science) assertions were certainly provocative, for me the truly thought-provoking aspect of the symposium was the collective effort to address some deep questions that still seek answers. There are a lot of them, but here are a few at the top of my list.
How do you know “loose” monetary policy when you see it?
Charles Calomiris—whose paper received attention at Free exchange, and is summarized by the author himself at Vox—says it is the real (or inflation-expectations adjusted) federal funds rate. I suspect that conforms to the definition favored by many, but the significance of defining the stance of monetary policy in this way was hammered home by Tobias Adrian and Hyun Song Shin:
…some key tenets of current central bank thinking [have] emphasized the importance of managing expectations of future short rates, rather than the current level of the target rate per se. In contrast, our results suggest that the target rate itself matters for the real economy through its role in the supply of credit and funding conditions in the capital market.
There is a fair amount at stake in understanding which of these views is correct:
Are longer-term interest rates relatively high while the real federal funds rate is so low because policy is quite loose and inflation expectations are rising? Or are the elevated long-term rates a sign that policy is really restrictive? Or is the picture just a symptom of a combination of currently weak returns to capital (keeping short-term rates low), the prospect of better times ahead (and higher long-run returns to capital), and a return to more realistic pricing of risk, all of which would be consistent with the proposition current policy is neither too easy nor too tight? The question is not academic.
Is there crisis after subprime?
A primary component of Calomiris’ thesis is (in the words of his Vox piece) “loose monetary policy, which generated a global saving glut.” That global saving glut connection would come up again, most prominently in MIT professor Bengt Holmstrom’s discussion of the contribution by Gary Gorton (itself an essential read if you have any questions at all about the way subprime markets work, or what they have to do with SIVs, CDOs, and ABXs). The starting point of Holmstrom’s argument—a variation on earlier themes from Ben Bernanke (for the general audience) and Ricardo Caballero, Emmanuel Farhi, and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas (for the economists in the crowd)—goes something like this: Surplus saving in emerging economies has driven up the demand for liquid assets. Liquidity being a specialty of the United States in particular, the excess demand drives down interest rates here, stimulates spending, and expands deficits on the country’s current account.
The story, I believe, goes back to the late 1990s. One important difference between then and now is that the liquid assets most in demand at the close of the past decade were highly concentrated in long-term Treasury securities. Another is the fact that the related private-asset appreciation in the late 1990s was manifested in equity markets. After the tech-stock bust, however, the fundamental global imbalances remained and found a new home in debt created by the subprime housing market. As Professor Holmstrom and others noted, collateralized debt markets, based as they are on leverage and low levels of information flows, are much more complicated animals than equity markets.
The question that remains is obvious. What is there to stop the next crisis if global imbalances persist? And if they do, is “better” monetary policy—whatever that might be —a sufficient condition for avoiding future problems?
Which leads me to…
Is there a better way to prepare for future bouts of financial market turmoil?
One answer—shared by many at the symposium—is that we can do so imperfectly at best, and that ultimately governments or markets or both just have to clean up the mess afterward. That approach feels a bit costly at the moment, so it seems a prudent thing to explore proactive measures that may at least mitigate the impact when problems arise. On this front, the biggest buzz of the symposium was probably generated by Anil Kashyap, Jerome Stein, and Raghuram Rajan, who proposed the development of “insurance policies” that would infuse the banking sector with fresh capital when they need it most. I’ve run on too long now, so for further elaboration I will refer you again to Sudeep Reddy – or to the paper itself.
A related reading PS: You will find more on the Chairman’s speech at Free exchange, at Calculated Risk (here and here), and at the William J. Polley blog. On Professor Buiter’s session you will find no shortage of commentary. The Daily Reckoning, naked capitalism, Economic Policy Journal, and Equity Check provide what I am sure is just a sampling.
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July 03, 2007
The World According To Goldman Sachs (And Almost Everyone Else)
From my email, "A Tale of Two Tail Risks," from Goldman Sachs' Michael Vaknin:
- Sub-prime mortgage woes still hold centre-stage as housing fundamentals deteriorate further.
- A full-blown spillover from credit markets to other asset classes is unlikely as corporate sector and global macro fundamentals remain strong.
- Rather, credit market will feature less leverage, more convents, elevated volatility and gradual supply absorption.
- Upward risks to global inflation also remain high on the list of what investors worry about currently.
- On our baseline case, prudent monetary policy should limit a build-up of inflationary pressures.
From a fundamental standpoint, there are two conflicting forces to consider. First, the ongoing deterioration in the residential housing market will continue to weigh on the mortgage market. Recent housing market data point to further inventory accumulation, while price indicators suggest the deceleration in house prices has gained more traction recently. The Case-Shiller 10- and 20-city composite indexes have declined sharply in April (7?% on annualized basis). The resulting decline in housing equity, along with the recent widening of mortgage rates and tightening of contractual mortgage conditions are all likely to keep credit investors on high alert.
On the bright side, corporate fundamentals remain fairly robust. Corporate default fundamentals are in good health, and from a macro perspective, corporate earnings are still supported by broadly favourable global demand conditions. While measures of industrial activity (including our Global Leading Indicator) have been somewhat softer than expected recently, from a level perspective the global manufacturing cycle remains comparatively strong, and a more broad-based weakness in the data is needed to shift this perception. Today's US ISM and the upcoming US payroll data are highly important in this respect.
That ISM report was, of course, a good one, although today's news on pending home sales failed to break the string of lousy housing data and factory orders for May were primarily lauded for being less bad than expected. But put it together and the consensus seems to be that it all adds up to the Goldman Sachs story. That's what came through in yesterday's round-up of forecasts from the Wall Street Journal, and the story that we're sticking to appeared again today in Bloomberg's coverage of the housing sales and orders reports:
Economists and the Federal Reserve predict growth will accelerate from its first quarter pace, the weakest since 2002, even as housing remains a burden. Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last month there was no sign of "major spillovers'' from the housing slide. Industry reports for June show manufacturers are raising production as businesses spend on investment.
"The second half is coming together almost perfectly according to the Fed's plan,'' said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Housing is going to be a drag but if we get some strength in business spending then the economy will be able to handle it.''
Though some of the forecasters in that Wall Street Journal survey -- about 20 percent --- put inflationary risks at the top of their wish-not list, GS's Vaknin wants to ease their minds:
As global activity continues to grow at an above-trend rate and commodity prices remain elevated, a re-acceleration in consumer price inflation, particularly in the major markets, remains a clear risk to the outlook for financial asset returns. Consider that, on a year-on-year basis, headline inflation in advanced economies has accelerated from 1.7% in Q4:06 to around 2.0% currently, driven largely by higher food and energy prices. Such acceleration comes on the back of extended tightness in production capacity: According to the OECD, the output gap in this group of countries is about to move into a positive territory by year-end after hovering in negative levels since mid-2001.
Despite these seemingly worrying observations, we that think inflation, particularly in the G-7, should accelerate only moderately before stabilizing at benign levels early next year. Granted, elevated food and energy prices may keep headline inflation above core measures for a bit longer. But this should be seen in the context of two important developments: (1) US core inflation is on a genuine deceleration path, and (2) Monetary policy stance remains prudent in other major economies where upside inflation risks are clearly higher.
The "monetary policy stance" is key, and it probably explains why so many commentators are taking their predictions of a policy-rate cut off the table for the time being.
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Tracked on Jul 4, 2007 10:53:11 AM
June 26, 2007
What's That Unpleasant Sound?
The United States faces a severe credit crunch as mounting losses on risky forms of debt catch up with the banks and force them to curb lending and call in existing loans, according to a report by Lombard Street Research.
The group said the fast-moving crisis at two Bear Stearns hedge funds had exposed the underlying rot in the US sub-prime mortgage market, and the vast nexus of collateralised debt obligations known as CDOs.
"Excess liquidity in the global system will be slashed," it said. "Banks' capital is about to be decimated, which will require calling in a swathe of loans. This is going to aggravate the US hard landing."...
Lombard Street’s warning comes as fresh data from the US National Association of Realtors shows that the glut of unsold homes reached a record of 8.9 months supply in May. Sales of existing homes slid to an annual rate of 5.99m.
The median price fell for the 10th month in a row to $223,700, down almost 14pc from its peak in April 2006. This is the steepest drop since the 1930s.
The Mortgage Lender Implode-Meter that tracks the US housing markets claims that 86 major lenders have gone bankrupt or shut their doors since the crash began.
The latest are Aegis Lending, Oak Street Mortgage and The Mortgage Warehouse.
It is worth noting that those are specifically mortgage-lending corporations not commercial banks, so I am not clear on the basis of this claim:
Lombard Street said the Bear Stearns fiasco was the tip of the iceberg. The greatest risk lies in the “toxic tranches” of lower grade securities held by the banks.
Much-trumpeted claims that banks had shifted off the riskiest credit exposure on to the asset markets was “largely a fiction”, said [Charles Dumas, the group's global strategist].
In fact, the article contains more assertions than facts. But I think it is agreed that if there is going to be a really big spillover effect from ongoing housing woes, this is where we'll find it.
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June 13, 2007
Still The Place To Run
Just when you think you have it figured out. From Bloomberg:
Treasurys rallied Wednesday, after recent sell-offs in bond prices sent the benchmark yield to a five-year high, attracting money from investors amid speculation the economy will continue to grow at moderate levels.
The buying spree occurred despite news of a jump in May retail sales, higher- than-expected import prices and a Federal Reserve Beige Book survey of regional economies that depicted an economy with tame inflation and moderate growth.
One explanation for the sudden reversal in the Treasury-yield trend is that there is no explanation required: On a day-to-day basis asset prices rise and asset prices fall. Unless you are one of the relatively few who makes his or her fortune vacuuming up the arbitrage pennies, it really is of no consequence. Still, it's fun (if not particularly productive) to speculate. One line of argument might be that the strong retail sales were really not quite as strong as they seem. From the Wall Street Journal Online:
We do not advise looking at either the very weak April or the robust May result alone, as neither is an accurate representation of underlying consumer spending… While May saw a bounce, the two months together don’t paint a particularly ebullient picture, particularly when looked at excluding large, price-related gains in gasoline purchases. –Joshua Shapiro, MFR, Inc.
But if you don't like that one, the Bloomberg article has plenty more:
"There are lots of rumors out there" to explain the unexpected rally, said
T.J. Marta, fixed income strategist at RBC Capital Markets. "Our rumor is that there was a huge purchase of 30-year notes by an Asian buyer."
After the purchase "a sheep-like mentality" set in, inspiring more buyers to return to the market, Marta said...
Kim Rupert, fixed-income strategist at Action Economics, attributed the day's gains to "an oversold condition."
"We've come a long way in a short time," she said.
Renewed concerns about the deteriorating subprime mortgage market may have spurred some safe-haven buying. BusinessWeek online Wednesday reported that a 10-month-old Bear Stearns Companies Inc. (BSC) hedge fund is down 23% for the year largely due to subprime problems.
That last one is the one that catches my eye, as it reflects a point that seems to prove itself over and over again: When the players get nervous, it's still to the U.S. Treasury market they run.
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