The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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October 21, 2011

Is the growth tide turning?

It has been a tough year for forecasters, as the Atlanta Fed's President Dennis Lockhart explained in a speech delivered Tuesday evening:

"The basic story of the first half of this year was one of disappointment versus expectations. At the beginning of the year, the consensus forecast had gross domestic product (GDP) growth for 2011 in the range of 3 to 4 percent. Though the Atlanta Fed's forecast was at the lower end of that range, we generally shared the view that the recovery was firmly established…

"A pretty clear picture of just how bad the first quarter was became apparent toward the end of the second quarter, when the FOMC met in late June. At that point, notwithstanding weakness in the early months of the year, the widely held outlook was that growth would rebound in the second half. Many anticipated that the effects of the price and disaster shocks would quickly dissipate…

"As the summer progressed, the data surprises were unrelenting and on the negative side of expectations.

By the time of the early August FOMC meeting it was clear to my Atlanta Fed colleagues and me that we had to rethink our position. The momentum of the economy looked a lot weaker than was our assessment earlier in the summer."

That story is well-captured by a picture of the evolution of Blue Chip consensus forecasts over the course of the year:

As President Lockhart explains, what has been most worrisome is the cumulative nature of the forecast errors implied in the above chart:

"Let me mention parenthetically that, given the complexity and dynamism of the economy, forecasting is fraught with errors and misses. One of my colleagues says the only thing he can forecast with certainty is that his forecast will be wrong. It's when forecasts are persistently wrong in the same direction, and by a substantial measure, that you worry you've missed the real story."

That reality can, of course, work in a positive direction as well as a negative direction. The encouraging news is that the forecasting mistakes have been accumulating in the direction of excess pessimism:

"We at the Atlanta Fed regularly monitor the data series that directly enter into the GDP calculation, along with important other series, including employment… In the months leading up to July, the downside surprises in the data dominated. In August and September, upside and downside surprises were roughly equal. But in October, the surprises have generally been to the upside."

One aspect of this analysis is called a "nowcasting" exercise that 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 17 components of GDP for the current quarter. Those forecasts of GDP components are then aggregated to get a current-quarter estimate of overall GDP growth.

The outcomes of this exercise have been as positive in the third quarter as they were negative for the first two quarters of the year:

At this point, we'll interrupt this blog post to offer a few disclaimers. First, we wouldn't want to put too much weight on the specific number cranked out by this exercise. Also, beyond the usual warnings about the imprecision of statistical estimates, we'll add that much of the data being used in the estimates are subject to revision—and we don't yet have very much information on activity in October. Finally, even with the improvements in performance versus expectations, the view of the moment is still centered on near-term growth that is less than stellar, as President Lockhart described in his remarks:

"[M]ost private sector forecasters envision growth in 2012 approaching 2.5 percent. In the opinion of many economists, that 2.5 percent approximates the steady-state growth rate of the economy's potential. This rate would certainly be an improvement over 2011 as a whole. The problem is without growth measurably better than 2.5 percent, little progress will be made in absorbing slack in the economy—above all, labor market slack."

But after the long run of negative news that has characterized most of this year, we are for now at least moving in the right direction.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed



Patrick HigginsPatrick Higgins, economist at the Atlanta Fed



October 21, 2011 in Data Releases, Economic Growth and Development | Permalink


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Whether you’re in the ‘”ore optimistic” or the “less optimistic” camp, the latest improvements in the various forecasts reflect an assumption that there will be no major negative surprises this year. I’m not at all sure that such an assumption is a safe bet this year. There are still plenty of things that can go wrong in this delicate economy and slowly thawing credit environment.

Posted by: Stop Foreclosure | October 23, 2011 at 09:38 AM

I suspect there's been some inventory clearing that has pushed GDP up temporarily.

I also suspect that many people are like me and suffering from Thrift Fatigue. I've been splurging a bit on resaurants and also splurged on a excercise machine (which was marked down 60%) to get me through the winter without having to go to the gym. I also bought a plane ticket to visit family over christmas.

This is cutting into my saving, which are already inadequate, and I will need to really buckle-down this winter.

Posted by: aaron | October 24, 2011 at 07:18 AM

My clothes are also getting threadbare and will need to be replaced.

Posted by: aaron | October 24, 2011 at 07:19 AM

In a word, no. Consumption rose by 2.4% in Q3, hooray! The savings rate in September was 3.6%, compared to 5.3% in June. Sound sustainable to you? Friday's payroll number looks like another whopping 100K. Of course, we need to be vigilant about inflation, right? Let's see the employment cost index in q3 rose at a 2-year low of +0.3%. Core PCE "the Fed's preferred inflation measure" in September came in, uh, negative. Of course it could get better next year except unemployment benefit extensions will expire along with payroll tax breaks.

Dave, are you deliberately trying to foment social unrest and stoke the "occupy wall street" crowd with comments like this?

Posted by: Rich888 | October 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM

I really enjoyed reading this post, I always appreciate topics like this being discussed to us. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: stenen tafelblad | April 10, 2015 at 10:44 AM

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October 17, 2011

State and local fiscal fortunes: Follow the money (collected)

Last week, we found ourselves in conversation with some colleagues discussing the issue of state and local fiscal conditions, which by pure coincidence coincided with the announcement that the city of Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy. In the course of conversation, our attention was drawn to an interesting fact. Prior to 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data through 2008, annual growth of total revenues at the state and local level was closely aligned with direct expenditures at the same level. Since 2000, however, this pattern has decidedly changed. The main reason is the dramatic volatility of total revenue:

Revenues at the state and local level come from many sources. Taxes from income, sales, and property, of course, but also from various fees and charges associated from education, utilities, ports and airports, and so on. In addition, revenues come from transfers from the federal government and, importantly, asset income from trust fund portfolios.

In fact, the primary source of the increased volatility in state and local government revenues since 2000 is large swings in revenue going into insurance trust funds to finance compulsory or voluntary social insurance programs operated by the public sector.

Insurance trust revenue is derived from contributions, assessments, premiums, or payroll "taxes" required of employers and employees. It also includes any earnings on assets held or invested by such funds. Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.

Though fluctuations in insurance fund revenues have been the largest source of fluctuations in overall state and local revenues over the past decade or so, volatility in general revenue is still an issue. Ups and downs in income tax revenues have been particularly sharp since 2000.

Interestingly, Census Bureau data for state government finances show tax revenue growth turned negative in 2009.

In research that focuses specifically on revenue variability at the state level, UCLA law professor Kirk Stark notes the possibility that state revenues have too much reliance on the same income-centric tax base that characterizes the federal revenue code:

"Perhaps the most obvious (yet little discussed) federal inducement for the design of state and local tax systems is the fact that Congress has established an elaborate and detailed legal framework for certain taxes—including, most notably, the individual and corporate income taxes—but not for others. The very existence of the Code, Treasury Regulations, IRS administrative guidance, and federal judicial case law creates an almost irresistible incentive for the states to adopt individual and corporate income taxes. The availability of the federal income tax base as a starting point in calculating state tax liability is an unqualified benefit. …

"At the same time, however, there are potentially significant costs associated with having states piggyback on the federal income tax. Taxes that might be suitable for use by a central level of government are not necessarily appropriate for use by state or local governments. Some of the most volatile state revenue sources are those upon which states rely by virtue of piggybacking on the federal income tax."

The theme of Professor Stark's article is the role that federal policy might play in generating revenue volatility at the state level:

"Through various inducements and limitations embedded in federal law, the federal government has stacked the deck in favor of state revenue volatility, unwittingly exacerbating the subnational fiscal crises that it is then called upon to mitigate through bailouts and general fiscal relief."

Some other examples of how federal tax policy can have an impact on state and local policy according to Stark include "differential treatment of alternative tax sources within the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes" and "various specific provisions in federal law that limit state taxing authority."
Professor Stark is clear on the point that the research in this area has defied simple generic conclusions about how state and local tax codes can be constructed to minimize revenue volatility. And the work is largely silent on how the volatility question fits into the broader question of optimal tax-system design. But it is hard to argue with this conclusion:

"If the federal government is interested in reducing the likelihood and severity of future state fiscal crises, it should consider changes to federal law that would eliminate the current bias in favor of volatile state tax systems."

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


John Robertson John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

October 17, 2011 in Economic Growth and Development, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink


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Very good blog! Always an interesting read!

This article as well. It's title might be somewhat misleading, however.

To assess the fortunes of States and Cities, spending, or more precisely, what they *should* be spending, appears more relevant than the variance of income.

It is hard to make the numbers work when future pension obligations are included in the liabilities, volatility of earnings notwithstanding (e.g. Illinois).

Again, keep up with the good work!

Posted by: SamK | October 19, 2011 at 10:01 AM

But volatility of some of local revenues seems to me a good idea because it is anti-cyclical, just like for the Union budget: taxes go down when incomes go down. Since the USA includes a fiscal Union supposedly if a locality has a sudden drop in revenues the Union budget should support distressed localities (with safeguards).

The alternative would be for local taxes to rise sharply as a percentage of income when local economic activity is depressed, which sounds mad to me.

Unless the idea is to shift most of the local taxation burden to low income residents, via taxes on transactions that are largely independent of income and on expenditures that have very little elasticity to price; for example by replacing local taxes on income with local taxes on food sales, or rents, and with masses increases in fees on services like water supply and garbage collection and public transport.

Also, the "insurance fund" story is simply the old accounting strategy: to book "estimated" gigantic expected capital gains and impossibly high returns on the insurance fund, and cut income taxes on wealthy residents with the resulting "savings", and then when the insurance fund investments as expected fail to deliver during a recession, recommend a massive cut in services or a switch from income related to consumption related taxes to cover the shortfall.

Both strategies are not mad, just politics of a very specific sort.

Posted by: Blissex | October 20, 2011 at 05:45 PM

«Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.»

There is another note as to this: why ever is there *any* volatility in these insurance funds? USA treasuries have not been that volatile.

Comparing insurance fund assets with stock market valuations seems crazy to me, as it seems to imply that local government insurance funds are invested speculatively instead of prudently, and from the graph it seems that they volatility is even greater than that of the S&P500, which means that they haven't even been invested in index funds, but in stock-picking speculative strategies.

The graph actually seems to suggest a massive breakdown in the fiduciary duties of local government investment managers, as if their goal was not just to book massive gains to justify cutting local taxes, but also to push up stock market prices via extremely leveraged speculation to pursue a further set of political goals. That would be madness.

Posted by: Blissex | October 20, 2011 at 05:57 PM

That the volatility of investment funds is much higher than that of the S&P seems to imply that the funds contain a significant amount of highly speculative leveraged instruments, for example stock derivatives.

I personally think that there is no reason whatever to invest local government funds in anything other than treasuries (like OASDI does) on both prudential and return grounds.

But it seems that politicians of many local governments instead thought that Orange County was a laudable model and Mr. Citron a hero prophet.

Posted by: Blissex | October 21, 2011 at 05:50 AM

I think the biggest inducement to states having income taxes is the federal deduction for state income taxes paid. The deduction causes part of the state's tax burden to be shifted to the federal government. If a small state like Hawaii can impose and administer a highly successful broad-based gross receipts tax, I don't think the mere existence of tax code is enough by itself to attract a state to the net income tax. After all, one state could also copy another's code. Just keeping up with changes in the federal income tax imposes a burden on tax administrators.

Posted by: don | October 27, 2011 at 06:30 PM

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2009 state and local government data on October 31: http://www.census.gov/govs/estimate/

Posted by: Jeff | November 01, 2011 at 10:34 AM

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October 07, 2011

Two more job market charts

Correction: One of macroblog's careful readers noted we mistakenly stated that the job creation pace from January 2011 through the date of the blog posting averaged 96,000 jobs per month. The 96,000 jobs per month actually applies to the average job creation pace over the previous three months at the time of the posting. We made this correction in the last sentence of the second paragraph. (10/21/11)

If you are looking for the full rundown on the September employment report, there is, as usual, plenty of good commentary to be found in the blogosphere. I'll add a couple more graphs to the pile, similar to exercises we have done with gross domestic product in the past.

Payroll employment growth has averaged about 110,000 jobs a month since February 2010, the jobs low point associated with the crisis and recession. This growth level compares, unfavorably, with the 158,000 jobs added per month during the last jobs recovery period from August 2003 (the low point following the 2001 recession) through November 2007 (the month before the recent recession began). One hundred and ten thousand jobs a month compares favorably, however, to the 96,000 job creation pace for the past three months.

Are these sorts of differences material? If the economy can find its way to creating jobs at the same rate as the last recovery—which nobody remembers as particularly off-the-chart spectacular—we would be back to the prerecession level of overall employment by spring 2015. If, on the other hand, we can only eke out the sub-100k pace we've seen this year, that date moves out to 2017:

So we do eventually get there in terms of recovering the jobs lost during the course of the past four years. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the unemployment rate. Because the unemployment rate has more moving pieces—like assumptions about labor force participation rates (or how many people jump in and out of looking for jobs)—back-of-the-envelope calculations are a bit more speculative than the simple employment paths in the previous chart. But with a few assumptions, such as the presumptions that the labor force will grow at the same rate as census population projections (for the aficionados, my calculations also assume that the ratio of household employment to establishment employment is equal to its average value since January of this year), the unemployment rates associated with job growth of 158,000, 110,000, and 96,000 per month would look something like this:

These paths are just suggestive, of course, but I think they tell the story. The same jobs recovery rate of the prerecession period would get the unemployment rate down below 7 percent in four years or so. But at the pace we have been going this year, things get worse, not better.

Update: Many other fine pictures are available at Angry Bear, Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis, The Capital Spectator, Modeled Behavior, and lots from Calculated Risk (here and here, the latter with related links). At Econbrowser, guest blogger Mike Duecker delivers forecasts for 150,000 jobs per month—but not until mid-2012.

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


October 7, 2011 in Data Releases, Employment | Permalink


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it would be interesting to compare public sector job losses in this recession to the last and see if that's the difference...

i believe ~600,000 jobs have been lost in state & local govt. this time around...

Posted by: rjs | October 08, 2011 at 04:44 AM

Does it matter that the job growth is in the private sector? We are losing jobs in the public sector, so growth in the private sector, if I recall correctly, is not that far off from what we had in the last recovery.


Posted by: steve | October 08, 2011 at 10:55 AM

Absolutely fascinating work. I can't help but notice a re-pricing going on as well. Certainly in regard to consumer durable's, real prices seem to have been falling, domestic wages as well appear in some sectors to be re-adjusting as well. Is there something going on in the economy of which unemployment is just a symptom?

Posted by: Thomas A. Coss | October 09, 2011 at 01:16 PM


Private sector employment, as of mid-September, was 109.3 mln (says the payroll survey). In January of 2008 (the peak), it was 115.6 mln. So here we are, 19 months from the trough in private payroll employment, and still 6.3 mln shy of the peak in private employment. If the growth pace is as good as it was in some prior recessions, it is still a far cry from what is needed to restore the prior peak in private employment, much less absorb new labor market entrants.

Government employment, at 22 mln in September, was 582k below the peak (ex-census), and still falling. Public sector job losses are vastly smaller than the current shortfall in private jobs. It would be good to have an increase in any form of employment, but it is weak demand for workers in the private sector which is at the root of our labor market problems.

Posted by: kharris | October 11, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Why hire when you can do more with less? This American system of labor is not only broken, it's dead. All of you are better educated, and more productive than any of your ancestors for what? A "manufacturing" job? Please.

Perhaps a job isn't what Americans should be looking for anymore. Let the Asians work, I'll surf the web.

Posted by: FormerSSResident | October 13, 2011 at 07:43 PM

Another view at the same topic. It is better to use real GDP per capita instead of job creation in order to predict unemployment: http://mechonomic.blogspot.com/2011/10/some-corrections-to-david-altigs-job.html

Although, for employment is should work by definition.

Posted by: kio | October 15, 2011 at 05:46 AM

Wow, so you're saying a 2 year shock will take ~15 years to undo assuming best case scenario...

Posted by: Ess | October 16, 2011 at 01:51 AM

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