Monday, April 30, 2018

Good Initial Q1 GDP Growth

Popular Economics Weekly

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to the "advance" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 2.9 percent.

It dropped from the Q4 2.9 percent growth rate because of a decline in consumption. Consumers were probably tapped out from the holiday shopping splurge, and consumer spending now makes up 70 percent of GDP activity.
“The increase in real GDP in the first quarter reflected positive contributions from nonresidential fixed investment, personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, private inventory investment, federal government spending, and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased,” said the report.
Businesses picked up the slack, however, said commentators. Investment in structures such as office buildings and drilling rigs doubled to 12.3 percent while spending on equipment was up 6.1 percent. It looks like the biggest corporate tax cuts in 30 years may have helped give a lift to investment in the first quarter.

More drilling rigs won’t help our aging infrastructure, however, now some $2.5T in arrears on the deferred maintenance and replacement of our roads, bridges, electrical grid, water systems, and so forth. And the longer we wait to repair and upgrade our infrastructure, the further we fall behind China and other surging economies in growth.

Congress gave corporations the tax cuts, but that won’t help our productivity or future growth if they don’t now begin to spend on the public works that keep us competitive with the likes of China that is spending on everything including developing alternative energies to wean them from the polluting fossil fuels that the current US administration will not.

It is economic suicide, really, for Republicans to be cutting taxes to line their supporters’ pockets (some $1.5T over 10 years) and cut spending on Medicare and Medicaid to pay for it in the latest tax bill, when the $1.5T should have been used to keep the US competitive with the rest of the world.

The value of inventories, which adds to GDP, also increased to $33.1 billion from $15.6 billion. Investment in new housing was flat. In a surprise, the U.S. trade picture brightened. That also contributed to the higher-than-expected GDP. Exports rose 4.8 percent to outpace a 2.6 percent increase in imports. Government spending was also a bit stronger than expected, up 1.2 percent, said the BEA.

But hints of higher inflation in wages and salaries may cause the Fed to act sooner in this week’s FOMC meeting, rather than in June. The government reported the employment cost index rose 0.8 percent in Q1 which is the high end of expectations. The year-on-year rate is up 1 tenth to 2.7 percent for the highest reading of the last 10 years.
“And wages & salaries, not benefits, are the leading source of pressure, up 0.9 percent in the quarter for an annual 2.7 percent increase. But benefits are also up, climbing 0.7 percent for 2.6 percent year-on-year,” reports Econoday.
I maintain the Fed should not be raising rates further, until employee incomes have a sustained chance to break the inflation barrier of 2.5 percent—maybe for the rest of this year? The fact that it’s taken 10 years for wages and salary rises to return to levels prior to the Great Recession (per above graph) should tell us why it has taken us so long to recover. It’s the workers who have suffered most from the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression, not the banks and corporations.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter:

Thursday, April 26, 2018

New-Home Sales, Consumer Confidence Surging

The Mortgage Corner
Graph: Econoday

In spite of rising mortgage rates, new-home sales are booming and consumer confidence is at multi-year highs. March new-home sales rose 4.0 percent annualized to 694,000 and is just off the expansion high of 711,000 set in November last year.
"Sales of new single-family houses in March 2018 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 694,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 4.0 percent above the revised February rate of 667,000 and is 8.8 percent above the March 2017 estimate of 638,000," said their report.
Interest rates are rising, so what gives? Part of the answer is newly married millennials (Gen Y’ers) are entering the housing market in greater numbers, and personal incomes continue to rise faster than inflation. The share of new, entry-level buyers for existing single family homes has risen back to 40 percent of sales, according to the NAR.

Interest rates haven’t risen that much, either, and it’s April when consumers should be seeing larger tax refunds with the new tax bill. The 30-year conforming fixed rate is still 4.125 percent in California for a 1 pt. origination fee with the best lenders, for instance, which is up just 0.375 percent from last year’s low.


The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index is up 6 percent in one year, and those surveyed said buying plans are special positives of the April report including big gains for autos, where sales were already strong in March, and also housing where this week's data are confirming strength. Inflation expectations, however, remain unchanged at 4.7 percent which is low for this reading.
“Consumer confidence increased moderately in April after a decline in March,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved somewhat, with consumers rating both business and labor market conditions quite favorably. Consumers’ short-term expectations also improved, with the percent of consumers expecting their incomes to decline over the coming months reaching its lowest level since December 2000 (6.0 percent).”
Rising interest rates are affecting both stocks and bonds, with the S&P having lost all its gains this month, and the 10-year bond yield breaching 3 percent. Traders are spooked because they have been living off fabulously cheap borrowed money to do their trading, the lowest rates over the past 4 years equaling post-WWII lows, which may no longer be the case. The Fed says so, at least, as they no longer want to buy some of those T Bonds to keep long term rates this low.

But stay tuned, with the world order changing rapidly, and a President being investigated for criminal activities. Bonds have been a notoriously popular safe haven in times of panic, and we are seeing such signs on many fronts, which could drive interest rates back down to historic lows, even with a booming economy. Markets need supervision by capable adults, while budgets have to be paid for, eventually.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: ns

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Results of Record Income Inequality

Financial FAQs

We know the results of trickle-down economic theory that says lower taxes and government regulations are supposed to lift all boats, as epitomized in Republicans’ latest tax bill. After the ninth year of this recovery, just 10 percent of American household benefited at all from subsequent economic growth.

In spite of the huge stock market recovery that has the S&P 500 index of largest US corporations up more than 25 percent since 2009, only the top 10 percent of income earners increased their net worth.
The busted housing bubble was a culprit, but also labor practices that have literally either outlawed collective bargaining for many workers, or enacted so called right-to-work laws that enable union members not to pay dues, even if they have benefited from union bargaining.

The result is that 25 percent of American workers earn less than poverty-level wages of $24,000 for a family of four, and household incomes haven’t risen faster than inflation since the 1980s. The national minimum wage hasn’t risen above $7.25 per hour since 2009, either.

Princeton’s Nobel laureate Angus Deaton has studied poverty and its causes for most of his professional live.
He said in a recent Project Syndicate article, a progressive journal: “Making matters worse”, he said, “more than 20 percent of workers are now bound by non-compete clauses, which reduce workers’ bargaining power—and thus their wages. Similarly, 28 US states have now enacted “right-to-work” laws, which forbid collective-bargaining arrangements that would require workers either to join unions or pay union dues. As a result, disputes between businesses and consumers or workers are increasingly settled out of court through arbitration—a process that is overwhelmingly favorable to businesses.”

This is while corporate America is expected to post its best quarter of profit growth in seven years, according to Marketwatch’s Ryan Vlastelica. “For the poorest American families, in the lowest fifth of wealth, their net worth shed 29 percent over that period. Drops of at least 20 percent were also seen in every income percentile except for those in the 80-89.9 percentile, where the decline was a more modest 5 percent. The wealthiest decile, however, saw a jump of 27 percent, as seen in the above chart.”
As I have covered in countless past columns, America actually ranks among the worst countries when it comes to income inequality, based on its Gini coefficient, a measure of the wealth distribution of a country’s residents. The coefficient for the U.S. is slightly less than 0.40, which puts it roughly even with Turkey and Botswana, and more unequal than nations as Israel, Greece, Spain, and Germany. Iceland, the most equal society measured by Deutsche Bank, has a coefficient below 0.25.

There are many remedies to this situation. One has but to look at past history. Our fastest growth period was during the 1950s and 1960s, when the top income-earners’ tax bracket was 92 percent, unions were strong, and corporate CEOs earned 25 times what their employees earned. This built both the physical and digital infrastructure that gave us the record prosperity of that era. We also developed the Internet, and landed on the Moon.That tax structure was a way of redistributing income where it would do the most public good. 

Today, corporate CEOs in the largest corporations earn on average 300 times what their employees earn. We enrich the already wealthy, in other words, and neglect to plant the seed corn that would create future prosperity.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter:

Monday, April 2, 2018

Q4 GDP Growth Up 2.9% Q/Q

Financial FAQs

Fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product, the total value of the country's production of purchases of domestically-produced goods and services by individuals, businesses, foreigners and government entities, rose to 2.9 percent from 2.6 percent in its third and final revision by the Commerce Department, finishing off 2017 with a bang and raising total 2017 GDP growth to 2.6 percent.

It was mostly consumer spending, up 4 percent, but personal incomes are rising faster as well, which will boost spending and continued good growth in 2018. This is because Real Disposable Income (less inflation and taxes) rose 0.4 percent pushing the annual increase to more than 2 percent.

“The strongest news in the report comes from the wages & salaries component of personal income which posted a fourth straight sharp gain,” reports Econoday, “at 0.5 percent. This helped total income which rose 0.4 percent for a third straight month and also helped the savings rate which rose 2 tenths to a still modest 3.4 percent.”

This measure includes all forms of compensation including employer contributions to medical insurance and pensions and has been showing more life than average hourly earnings, which is part of the monthly employment report and is the most closely watched of all wage measures.

However, it did nothing to inflation, as the GDP’s price index rose 2.3 percent Q/Q, but is up just 1.8 percent annually, as is the Fed’s preferred Personal Consumption (PCE) index. So still no inflation, even though wage and salaries are beginning to surge, and labor costs account for 2/3rds of product costs.

The Fed has said it will probably raise their interest rate twice more this year, which will put the Prime Rate at 5.25 percent, raising credit card rates and crimping consumer borrowing.

But with wages soaring, that may not slow down consumer spending or the growing foreign trade deficit. The goods deficit from countries such as China is now $75B/per in February and growing. So why is this administration pushing for trade tariffs, which is already instigating a trade war, and making those same goods more expensive to Americans?

No one believes this will reduce the trade deficit, either, as the manufactured goods we export will become more expensive, as well, reducing the demand for exports.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: