Friday, October 18, 2019

Slower Retail Sales Hint at Lower Q3 Growth

Popular Economics Weekly


U.S. retail sales that mirror consumer spending, which powers some two-thirds of U.S. GDP growth, fell for the first time in seven months in September, raising fears that a slowdown in the American manufacturing sector could be starting to bleed into the consumer side of the economy.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that retail sales dropped 0.3 percent last month as households slashed spending on building materials, online purchases and especially automobiles. The decline was the first since February.

Retail sales have increased 2.3 percent year-over-year, which is not a good number, as can be seen in the above graph dating from 2015. It averaged closer to 4 percent from 2010 to 2015, before falling to its current level.

And manufacturing has been hurting this year, as manufacturing production fell 0.5 percent, in the Fed’s latest Industrial Production report, after rising 0.6 percent in August due to a strike at General Motors. U.S. industrial output overall dropped 0.4 percent from a month earlier in September 2019.  

That was the sharpest decline in industrial output since April. For the third quarter as a whole, industrial production rose at an annual rate of 1.2 percent following declines of about 2 percent in both the first and the second quarters, per the below graph, with brown bars in graph showing negative growth. 

Tradingeconomics.com

Hence economic growth is looking weaker for the third quarter, with GDP growth now forecast at just 1.5 percent, according to a projection by CNBC and Moody’s Analytics.
“Weak consumer spending and inventory data caused economists responding to the Rapid Update tracker to lower their collective GDP projections by one-tenth of a percentage point to 1.5 percent, the lowest level yet for Q3,” said CNBC.
Consumers must keep spending more than they are saving to keep this economic afloat, in other words. The University of Michigan sentiment survey says consumers are optimistic on that score.

Econoday commented that last Friday’s U of Michigan survey bounced sharply higher in October, to a much stronger-than-expected 96.0 that easily exceeds Econoday's consensus range.
“The assessment of current conditions is the strong point in October's report, up nearly 5 points to 113.4 in what is a positive indication for consumer spending this month. Expectations are also higher, up 1.4 points to 84.8 and together with the jump in current conditions, suggest that the impeachment inquiry of President Trump is not having a significant impact on the consumer. In fact, the report notes that the ongoing GM strike was mentioned by respondents nearly twice as much as the impeachment.”
The GM strike has reportedly been settled, but the trade wars haven’t, so it remains to be seen whether consumers can remain this optimistic about their future.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Nobel Prize in Economics Breaks New Ground

Popular Economics Weekly

STOCKHOLM (AP) — The 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded Monday to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.”

It was ground-breaking for several reasons. Firstly, the Nobel committee is recognizing that the field of economics is finally becoming more science than social science by championing empirical field research, rather than purely academic research that was conducted mostly in ivory towers with mathematical formulas.

For instance, Prof George Akerlof, one of three that won the 2001 Nobel Prize, was the first of several so-called behavioral economists to win for his research on how individuals actually make financial decisions. He proved that humans don’t always act rationally in their best interests without institutional safeguards, such as Lemon Laws that prevent faulty used car sellers from putting new car dealers out of business.

Though the proof was done with mathematical formulas, it began the ongoing divorce from what was originally called Political Economics. What else to call it when one major branch of microeconomics was under the assumption that investors and wage earners actually acted in their own best interests in a level playing field without government oversight, yet never was validated with actual results?

The lines had been drawn between conservatives that advocated Adam Smith’s pronouncement that free, mostly unregulated markets with low taxation would remain healthy of their own accord and were the best way to maximize prosperity for all; with the Keynesian, New Deal economics of progressives that wanted governments to discipline capital markets for their excesses.

These opposing viewpoints on how human beings made financial decisions were based more on political choices than actual scientific research on financial behavior until research in other fields, such as psychology were brought into economics.

Hence this new approach is called ‘experimental’, because it prioritized actual field work using scientific methods to improve the lives of the poorest in developing countries. What did they discover?

“The Laureates’ research findings,” said the Nobel Prize announcement, “– and those of the researchers following in their footsteps – have dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice. As a direct result of one of their studies, more than five million Indian children have benefitted from effective programmes of remedial tutoring in schools. Another example is the heavy subsidies for preventive healthcare that have been introduced in many countries,” (that made preventative healthcare accessible to the poor).

It looks like this is becoming a worldwide movement to alleviate poverty and income inequality in developed countries as well, such as the U.S. of A. that has been lagging other developed (and underdeveloped) countries in improving the lives of our poorest citizens—thanks in large part to Big Business’s proclivity to maximize profits over every other corporate goal.

One example of this trend: JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimond announced in August a Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation by the Business Roundtable, a group of almost 200 large businesses, in which they “share a fundamental commitment to all of our Stakeholders”.
“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose,” said Dimond, “we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to:
  • · Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
  • · Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • · Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
  • · Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
  • · Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.
It remains to be seen if corporate behavior--that is in large part responsible for the record income inequality we see with the globalization of market forces--actually changes. But this award shines a light on what can happen when the Economic Sciences begin to follow the rules of scientific discovery, rather than the Political Economic verities of old.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Donald Trump's Reptilian Brain


Does this description sound familiar? “Territoriality, hierarchical structure of power, control, ownership, wars, jealousy, anger, fear, hostility, worry, stuck or frozen with fear, aggressiveness, conflict, extremist behavior, competitiveness, cold-blooded, dog-eat-dog beliefs, might is right, and survival of the fittest,” is one definition of reptilian behavior.

It also describes the behavior of President Donald Trump. Psychotherapists have been attempting to explain POTUS’s behavior in psychological terms. Many have said he suffers from NPD, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, defined in the DSM V treatment manual, as “… grandiosity, seeking excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy (Ronningstam & Weinberg, 2013).”

But why not turn to the biological sciences to describe President Trump’s behavior? The human brain is most simplistically described as having three parts; the earliest reptilian brain that contains our brute survival mechanisms; the mammalian limbic brain is the center of emotions and empathy; and neo-cortex the thinking part that modulates urges emanating from the other regions of the brain because of its ability to reason and judge.

A more basic way to define the reptilian brain is it contains the fight, flight, or freeze commands when an animal or human feels threatened. I am reminded of the behavior of pet Pythons, the largest of our snakes, who have literally turned on their owners—some eaten, others strangled, even though the Pythons were supposedly domesticated.

The most common explanation given by Herpetologists for such ‘aberrant’ behavior is that some pet Pythons were just biding their time when handled by their owners—they were measuring the size of their owner to know if they could be ingested. So they were following their basic instincts, as Trump is want to do. There have been cases of adult humans being attacked and fully ingested by Burmese Pythons—the largest Pythons—in the wild, as well.

What else could explain the behavior of this President whose success can only be attributed to a lifetime of lies and deceptions; who has ‘ingested’ those working closest to him by destroying their reputations, if they displease or are no longer of use to him?

The human species is mammalian because we give live birth to our offspring. But mammals evolved originally from reptiles; hence we still have the earliest reptilian brain that has been called the “lizard brain” because it provides the basic elements we need to survive.

This also explains POTUS’s authoritarian behavior, as perhaps that of the most extreme autocrats; Hitler, Stalin, and Vladimir Putin, who have literally killed their own people.

The question is how much longer will Americans will tolerate such reptilian behavior?

Harlan Green © 2019

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

U.S. Growth is Slowing!

Financial FAQs

Late Monday, the U.S. blacklisted 28 Chinese companies because of their alleged role in human-rights violations against Muslim minorities ahead of the high-level discussions which will be led by China Vice Premier Liu He on Thursday.

Bloomberg also reported the Trump administration is moving ahead with discussions around possible restrictions on capital flows into China, with a particular focus on investments made by U.S. government pension funds.


These unilateral actions by the Trump administration will be enough to bring on a mild recession sometime next year. Why? Because attempting to isolate the 2nd largest, or largest economy in the world—depending on which economic measure is used—can only harm international trade on which U.S. and world economic growth depends these days.

Manufacturing activity is already contracting, signaling that it is in a recession. The service sector will take longer to see the effects of the U.S. decoupling from China and international trade in general from the various trade wars because services are less dependent on foreign trade.

And last week Trump also said he would add a 10 percent tariff in September to the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports that had previously been excluded from earlier U.S. duties. China retaliated by suspending purchases of American farm crops and letting the value of its currency fall, effectively making Chinese goods cheaper to buy and negating some of the damage from U.S. tariffs.

The Chinese imports being taxed are consumer goods, such as TVs, computers, wash machines that American consumers buy.


The result? Both the Producer Price Index for wholesale goods (red line in graph), and probably the upcoming Consumer Price Index (dark blue line) shows where we are heading.

Wholesale prices in the PPI index are falling because of declining demand for unfinished goods, which are the raw material for finished products. The increase in wholesale inflation over the past 12 months slid to 1.4 percent from 1.8 percent, marking the lowest level in almost three years.
“Similarly, a more closely followed measure that strips out volatile food, energy and trade-margin costs was flat in September. The increase in the so-called core PPI over the past year dropped to 1.7 percent from 1.9 percent,” according to MarketWatch.
Another sign of declining demand is the 10-year Treasury yield declining to 1.55 percent; also recession territory, as investors flee stocks to the safe haven of U.S. Treasury securities.

It means the Fed will probably continue to lower their interest rates in an attempt to boost spending, which could keep consumers in the game for a while longer, but at a lower level of consumption as they save more of their earnings. 

Hence there is the possibility of a mild recession next year when consumers begin to realize that current U.S. economic policies only interested in punishing China, rather than negotiating a beneficial outcome in good faith, will harm American consumers as well.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Monday, October 7, 2019

How Much Has US Economy Slowed?

Financial FAQs


It’s a difficult question to answer. The ISM’s non-manufacturing Indexes still show growth, which is two-thirds of economic activity, but we are close to that edge of no growth at all.
The NMI® registered 52.6 percent, which is 3.8 percentage points below the August reading of 56.4 percent,” reports Anthony Nieves, Chair of the Institute for Supply Management. “This represents continued growth in the non-manufacturing sector, at a slower rate. The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index decreased to 55.2 percent, 6.3 percentage points lower than the August reading of 61.5 percent, reflecting growth for the 122nd consecutive month. The New Orders Index registered 53.7 percent; 6.6 percentage points lower than the reading of 60.3 percent in August. The Employment Index decreased 2.7 percentage points in September to 50.4 percent from the August reading of 53.1 percent. The respondents are mostly concerned about tariffs, labor resources and the direction of the economy,” said Nieves.
 We know the US economy is slowing, and the manufacturing activity is already contracting—the first of the four indicators that are used to call a recession—per the ISM’s Manufacturing Diffusion Index.


And last week’s Associated Data Processing survey came in at 135,000 jobs created, which is a slight downward trend. Just 8,000 jobs were added to the goods-producing sector, whereas 127,000 jobs were added to the service-providing sector, according to ADP.

ADP private payroll survey is usually within 50,000 of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly survey coming out tomorrow, which isn’t much help in predicting the BLS unemployment report.
So there you have it. Employment growth has leveled off. i.e., is no longer increasing. Tomorrow’s report may also show more weakness in job creation.

The 10-year Treasury yield also slipped back into the 1.5 percent range, a sign that there is little demand for credit. Interest rates this low are also a sign of pessimism about future growth, which can be self-fulfilling.

I believe our economy will continue to barely grow, and so avoid an outright recession; at least until next year’s presidential election, when the trade wars might or might not be finally resolved. That seems to be the consensus.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Saturday, October 5, 2019

Lowest Unemployment Rate In 50 Years

Popular Economics Weekly


The unemployment rate dropped to a 50-year low, and there are still 6 million jobs available. Private payrolls expanded by 114,000 after an upwardly revised 122,000 advance the prior month, according to a Labor Department report Friday that missed the median estimate of economists for a 130,000 gain. Total nonfarm payrolls climbed a below-forecast 136,000.

This is the slowest pace of job growth in four months, as businesses grew more cautious about hiring, but employment gains for August and July were revised up by a combined 45,000. Such are the vagaries of a fast-changing, but still robust jobs market.

With manufacturing activity weak, most hiring in September was concentrated in the services sector. Education and health care providers filled 40,000 positions. Government added 22,000 workers in 
September, but only 1,000 of the jobs were due to federal hiring for the 2020 Census. Economists had expected a much bigger increase in census workers. Job growth has slowed from 223,000 per month in 2018 to 158,000 over the last three months.


Trump’s trade war has had the biggest impact on the manufacturing sector, which contracted for the second straight month (losing 2,000 jobs), and featured the biggest pullback in export activity since the depths of the 2009 crisis, according to economist Steven Rattner.
Foreign trade and exports, the biggest drivers of manufacturing activity, are slowing grinding to a halt, in other words.

And the WTO has just ok’ed $7.5 billion in tariffs on European exports to the US, in part because of EU government subsidies to their airplane manufacturer Airbus, but also French wines and other products considered to be government subsidized.

Washington plans to impose a 10 percent tariff on aircraft imported from Europe and apply a 25 percent import tax on other agricultural and industrial items on October 18, the Office of the US Trade Representative said in a statement.
However, "If the US decides to impose WTO authorized countermeasures, it will be pushing the EU into a situation where we will have no other option than do the same," European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement.
This will further reduce world trade and economic growth, as the EU accounts for 25 percent of US exports, needless to say.

It’s a vicious circle of tit-for-tat retaliation that can only worsen the upcoming recession—which doesn’t look much like a recession at the moment—but stay tuned to what ultimately happens with China, as I’ve been saying.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Higher Home Sales Mean What?

The Mortgage Corner

"Sales of new single‐family houses in August 2019 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 713,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 7.1 percent above the revised July rate of 666,000 and is 18.0 percent above the August 2018 estimate of 604,000. "
A robust housing market could mitigate what is increasingly looking like a looming manufacturing recession due to the ongoing and increasingly contentious trade wars.

Another housing market indicator was also positive, per the National Association of Realtors (NAR). 

The Pending Home Sales Index, www.nar.realtor/pending-home-sales, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, climbed 1.6 percent to 107.3 in August, reversing the prior month’s decrease. Year-over-year contract signings jumped 2.5 percent. An index of 100 is equal to the average level of contract activity.
“It is very encouraging that buyers are responding to exceptionally low interest rates,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “The notable sales slump in the West region over recent years appears to be over. Rising demand will re-accelerate home price appreciation in the absence of more supply.”
This is while the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index fell to 47.8 percent last month from 49.1 percent, marking the lowest level since June 2009, when the Great Recession ended.

“Comments from the panel reflect a continuing decrease in business confidence,” said the report, “…The New Export Orders Index continued to contract strongly, a negative impact on the New Orders Index. Consumption (measured by the Production and Employment indexes) contracted at faster rates, again primarily driven by a lack of demand, contributing negative numbers (a combined 3.3-percentage point decrease) to the PMI® calculation.”
The decline in exports was due to a overall decline in foreign trade. A most recent example of the hurt from that decline was the closing of a Louisiana steel mill because it couldn’t pay for the rising costs of imported scrap steel that it made into finished steel projects, due to the 25 percent tariff (tax) on imported steel.

It remains to be seen whether other business sectors are beginning to contract, as well. Consumer spending, for example, is on the downward trend, rising just 0.1 percent in August, and 2.3 percent annually, approximately one-half of its 4.8 percent growth rate through the first two quarters, according to the last Q2 GDP estimate. It was the lowest spending in six months, and doesn’t augur well for the rest of the year.

And the latest U-turns in Chinese trade negotiations are coming from Trump’s proposal to limit Chinese company listings on U.S. stock exchanges, which is just one more reason for the increasing uncertainties about future growth.

So I keep wondering how much longer can a healthy housing market and low interest rates keep consumers happily consuming?

Harlan Green © 2019

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