Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Consumers Still Optimistic (Long Term)

 Popular Economics Weekly

What should we be looking for in Friday’s upcoming unemployment report? We hope that the torrid hiring pace—1.7 million nonfarm payroll jobs created in just the last three months—will continue a bit longer, despite the Ukraine invasion and high inflation that might cause consumers to cut back on their spending ways.

Calculated Risk

Tuesday’s JOLTS survey of available jobs reported there were still 11.3 million job openings. Hires edged up to 6.7 million while total separations were little changed at 6.1 million. The number of job openings (yellow) were up 43% year-over-year, a very good sign.

This should tell us there will be a strong official employment number Friday, because so-called quits were up 27% year-over-year, which is a sign that workers are finding better jobs. These are voluntary separations. (See light blue columns at bottom of graph for trend for "quits").

How much longer will inflation be a problem with the Ukraine invasion and soaring gas prices? The two major consumer confidence indexes give us a hint of what inflation level consumers are expecting. But there’s a difference in their thinking—short term pessimism that inflation is too high vs. long term optimism that it will come back down. This is one read that says consumers are expecting the U.S. economy longer term is going in the right direction.


The Conference Board’s monthly confidence survey was the most upbeat.

“Consumer confidence was up slightly in March after declines in February and January,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The Present Situation Index rose substantially, suggesting economic growth continued into late Q1. Expectations, on the other hand, weakened further with consumers citing rising prices, especially at the gas pump, and the war in Ukraine as factors. Meanwhile, purchasing intentions for big-ticket items like automobiles have softened somewhat over the past few months as expectations for interest rates have risen.”

The ‘other’, University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey was not so upbeat. It said its respondents think inflation will remain high over the next year but come down to a more normal level over the next 5 years.

“Consumer Sentiment remained largely unchanged in late March at the same diminished level recorded at mid-month,” said U of Michigan chief economist Richard Curtin. “Inflation has been the primary cause of rising pessimism, with an expected year-ahead inflation rate at 5.4%, the highest since November 1981.”

The difference in short and long term outlooks is remarkable and why the Federal Reserve believes higher inflation is transitory, based more on a shortage of products rather than soaring wage inflation, which would be a sign of the dreaded stagflation that occurred during the 1970s.

So, should policy makers be worried more about the short-term, rather than long-term inflation outlook?

Worrying too much about near term trends can lead to hasty actions, like raising interest rates prematurely to restrict available credit when there’s the possibility of a prolonged war in the Ukraine and we need markets to be as liquid as possible to weather the storm.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A Soft Landing For Energy?

 Financial FAQs


Should Americans worry about the price of gas and oil in coming months because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? And might it ultimately cause a recession if energy prices remain elevated?

That is what some economists seem to believe, such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

Professor Summers in a recent Wash Post Op-ed, said “I believe the Fed has not internalized the magnitude of its errors over the past year, is operating with an inappropriate and dangerous framework, and needs to take far stronger action to support price stability than appears likely. The Fed’s current policy trajectory is likely to lead to stagflation, with average unemployment and inflation both averaging over 5 percent over the next few years — and ultimately to a major recession.”

Yet the current unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, and more that 1,747,000 jobs created over just the past three months, so it’s hard to imagine a recession is anywhere on the horizon, unless the Ukraine invasion turns into something more.

In fact, our current inflation surge is due to our very robust economic growth, more than 3 percent above the prepandemic level, and at a 40-year high.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency says we have plenty gas and oil reserves, in fact a surplus which we can export to the EU, if necessary, to help maintain the sanctions until Putin cries Uncle on his Tsarist fantasy of a greater Russian empire.

“After record-high U.S. energy production and consumption in 2018, energy production grew by nearly 6% in 2019 while energy consumption decreased by about 1%, with production exceeding consumption on an annual basis for the first time since 1957. Total energy production declined by about 5% in 2020 but was still about 3% greater than consumption: production equaled 95.75 quads and consumption equaled 92.94 quads.”

Unfortunately, we are still over dependent on fossil fuels: “petroleum, natural gas, and coal—accounted for about 79% of total U.S. primary energy production in 2020,” said the USEIA.

It is leading to prolonged inflation for American drivers and is worrying Fed Chair Jerome Powell in his latest congressional hearings. So he is now sounding more hawkish re the need to raise interest rates faster.

“We will take the necessary steps to ensure a return to price stability. In particular, if we conclude that it is appropriate to move more aggressively by raising the federal funds rate by more than 25 basis points at a meeting or meetings, we will do so,” Powell said in a speech to the National Association for Business Economics.

So who is right, Summers or those who predict a prolonged trajectory of U.S. economic growth?

Nobelist Paul Krugman gets the last word in a recent NY Times Op-ed: “We recovered fast from the pandemic recession and seem to have avoided the long-term “scarring” effects that many feared. Most though not all of the inflation we’re experiencing reflects probably temporary global forces, and multiple indicators — consumer surveys, professional forecasters and financial markets — suggest that longer-term expectations of inflation remain “anchored,” that is, inflation isn’t getting entrenched in the economy.”

I believe we shouldn’t overlook the newfound unity of western, democratic nations that oppose Putin’s wars. How long can Putin and Russian citizens tolerate their economy reverting back to the size it was in 1980, as Daleep Singh, one sanctions expert interviewed on the TV news show Sixty Minutes put it?

Harlan Green © 2022

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Friday, March 18, 2022

Home Sales Playing Catchup

 The Mortgage Corner

Rising interest rates are slowing housing sales, with interest rates up more than one percent since last year, though still in the affordable range. This is while inventories can’t keep up with red-hot demand from homebuyers.

“Total housing inventory at the end of February totaled 870,000 units, up 2.4% from January and down 15.5 percent from one year ago (1.03 million). Unsold inventory sits at a 1.7-month supply at the current sales pace, up from the record-low supply in January of 1.6 months and down from 2.0 months in February 2021,” said Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride.

The combination of record demand and record low interest rates since 2018 (see below FRED Graph) has caused prices to soar in double digits, making home buying less affordable for many first-time homebuyers and exacerbating the housing shortage.


However, the 30-year conforming fixed rate is still at 4.0 percent, and 4.25 percent for super-conforming 30-year fixed, which means financing is still affordable for middle-class households.

Fixed rates began their decline below 6 percent at the end of the Great Recession and housing bubble (gray bar in graph) thanks mainly to former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s QE policy of purchasing Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.

The Fed is now reversing that policy to combat inflation, hence the rising interest rates. And builders aren’t yet catching up to demand because too few homes have been built since the end of the housing bubble and Great Recession.

FRED/Calculated Risk

This is while existing-home sales dipped in February, continuing a seesawing pattern of gains and declines over the last few months, according to the National Association of Realtors®, though they have remained above 6 million annual units. The last time sales reached 6 million annual units was during the housing bubble 2004-2007 when sales were as high as 7 million housing units, per Calculated Risk’s graph.

Total existing-home sales,1 https://www.nar.realtor/existing-home-sales, completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, sank 7.2% from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.02 million in February. Year-over-year, sales decreased 2.4% (6.17 million in February 2021).

"Housing affordability continues to be a major challenge, as buyers are getting a double whammy: rising mortgage rates and sustained price increases," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "Some who had previously qualified at a 3% mortgage rate are no longer able to buy at the 4% rate.”

Home builders are working hard to catch up to demand, and now have the most homes under construction since 1973, according to Bill McBride’s Calculated Risk Newsletter.

McBride asserts with 4% 30-year mortgage rates, “…we will likely see a slowdown in both new and existing home sales (based on previous periods of rising rates). It also seems likely house price growth will slow. However, the impact on inventory is unclear.

So rising interest rates will slow down this red-hot housing market, but until inventories return to a more normal 4-6 months of supply (from the current 1.7 months), inventories won’t catch up to the demand for housing and significantly moderate prices.

Harlan Green © 2021

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Retail Sales Slow, But Will Inflation?

 Popular Economics Weekly


How much longer will inflation be a problem, even with the Ukraine invasion and soaring gas prices? Retail sales can tell us something about inflation because it powers a major part of economic activity.

February retail sales increased just 0.3 percent, after rising 4.9 percent in January, because consumers cut back on spending. This is what consumers tend to do when things get more expensive, which helps to bring down overall inflation.

Retail sales have risen 15.9 percent YoY, as consumers with lots of savings have been demanding more than supply-chains can provide, hence the soaring inflation rate of late. But, sure enough, once consumers felt pinched, they cut back in February, which should cause inflation to fall below the current 7.5 percent annual rate that is making everything more expensive.

In fact, the wholesale Producer Price Index of materials that go into finished products in the Consumer Price Index has weakened. The so-called core rate without surging gas and auto prices rose just 0.2 percent in February, the lowest climb in 15 months, which might be a sign that supply chains are opening up.

This should also dampen speculation of an abrupt halt to economic growth, which some pundits believe will occur because the Fed is beginning to raise interest rates at the same time as the Ukraine invasion sanctions on everything Russian-owned are also boosting commodity prices.

Consumers believe prices will continue to rise sharply over the next year, which should continue to restrain spending, with inflation averaging 6 percent, according to a survey by the New York Federal Reserve. That’s up from 5.8 percent in January and matches the highest level on record.

But median three-year ahead inflation expectations ticked up just 0.3 percentage point to 3.8 percent, while remaining below its November and December 2021 levels of 4.2 percent and 4.0 percent, per the NY Fed

So how could the incoming sanctions bring on another recession, so soon after the pandemic recovery? Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers believes the Federal Reserve has waited too long to raise interest rates, and so must now overreact to play catch up and bring down soaring inflation, but also halt economic growth. And Canadian economist David Rosenberg believes Fed Chair Powell will turn into another Paul Volcker, who raised interest rates into double digits in the early 1980s that brought on two recessions.

However, I am in former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s camp, who successfully led us out of the Great Recession in 2009 by not raising interest rates too quickly, and in fact increased liquidity for businesses and individuals with the various Quantitative Easing programs while keeping inflation in the 2 percent range.

So who is right? Should we be tightening credit with the looming commodity shortages and even higher prices? I don’t think so, as it only lessens demand rather than stimulating the supply side shortage that is the core problem.

We must find replacements for the loss of Russian oil and commodities, such as wheat and corn. It means following Ben Bernanke’s lead by keeping interest rates low to give consumers and businesses the cushion they will need to weather the latest economic storm

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Wartime Should JOLT Job Formation

 Financial FAQs

Calculated Risk

The last time we had truly full employment in America was during World War Two. It’s a horrible thought, I know, but we ought to look at the ramifications of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The world was at war then and all hands were needed in in our factories to win the fight. (Remember Rosie the Riveter?) We may need to do so again if the Ukraine war spreads beyond its borders.

It could mean the huge demand for workers will continue, and push wages even higher.

Today’s JOLTS report showed that businesses continue their massive hiring effort in January and may continue to do so for the rest of this year. The Labor Department is reporting that after falling to as low as 4.6 million early in the pandemic, the number of open jobs soared above 10 million last summer for the first time ever. They have remained extremely high since then.

And though the economy has added an average of 614,00 new jobs in each of the past five months, businesses still say it’s hard to attract new employees and retain old ones.

The number of job openings was little changed at 11.3 million on the last business day of January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Hires and total separations were little changed at 6.5 million (blue line in Calculated Risk’s graph) and 6.1 million (red bars), respectively.”

This gives us an idea of the immensity of the U.S. economy, as well as its future direction..

The yellow line on Calculated Risk’s graph shows how high the demand for jobs has risen. And more are quitting their jobs to find better jobs. Some 4.3 million quit their jobs in the month. Quits peaked at 4.5 million in November. Before the pandemic, the number of people quitting jobs averaged fewer than 3 million a month.

There were 6.3 million Hires (blue line in graph) and 6.1 million Layoffs (red bar), so we should look for more job growth this year, in spite of the touted labor shortages.

But why are so many being hired if that is the case? More are re-entering the work force than was expected.

“Some 300,000 people entered the labor market in February, pushing the increase over the past six months to 2.5 million. Perhaps not coincidentally, economists note, the surge in the labor force began around the time that extra federal benefits for the unemployed expired,” said MarketWatch’s Jeffery Bartash recently.

A wider war is probably not in the cards with NATO saying the Ukraine invasion is not “our” war, but even the threat of war has caused economic activity to pick up, historically.

And with the largest number of immigrants fleeing the war zone since World War Two, who knows what can happen next?

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Friday, March 4, 2022

More Super Job Growth!

 Popular Economics Weekly


Workers are returning to work in every sector of the U.S. economy. They aren’t waiting any longer because of COVID concerns, or supply-chain problems, as the unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent from 4 percent, the government said Friday.

This is great news for economic growth this year. Businesses wouldn’t be hiring at this rate if the demand for their products was fading, or they weren’t finding enough supplies.

President Putin-for-life picked the wrong time to start another Cold War with his invasion of the Ukraine. World growth is accelerating as the pandemic subsides, and worldwide sanctions against anything owned by Putin and his Oligarchs will shrink the Russian economy even further, despite rising gas and oil prices.

The U.S. added a total of 678,000 jobs in February. Restaurants added 124,000 new jobs last month and hotels hired 28,000 people. Hiring also rose strongly at white-collar professional jobs (95,000), health care (64,000), construction (60,000) and transportation and warehousing (48,000).

Why are so many returning to work? The Omicron infection rate has very quickly returned to pre-Omicron levels, as I said last week, and mask mandates have been removed in most states. Consumers aren’t cowed by the Omicron, or any other variant, anymore.

Even hiring in January and December was stronger than previously reported. Job gains in the last two months were raised by a combined 92,000.

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for December was revised up by 78,000, from +510,000 to +588,000, and the change for January was revised up by 14,000, from +467,000 to +481,000.

That’s 1,747,000 jobs added in just the past three months. This will boost supply chains as more jobs means more is produced. And inflation may be slowing, as average weekly pay increased just $0.01 cents.

Will ongoing inflation fears hurt future job growth? Consumers and businesses have been ignoring high inflation over the past year. Why should it slow them down now?

“We are probably about 1½ million jobs away from getting back to the pre-pandemic levels for the labor market,” said a commentator cited by MarketWatch. “With 11 million job openings and seemingly every business in the country desperately trying to hire, the economy can absorb those extra 1.5 million workers without blinking an eye — and probably will over the next few months.” —Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities

Can Putin’s Oligarchs find a way to pull Putin out of his dream of another Czarist Russian Empire? Who knows how long will Russians endure the sanctions that are improverishing them?

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Thursday, March 3, 2022

What is Our 'State of the Union?'

 Financial FAQs



This is really all we need to know about Americans’ 'state of the union' that President Biden touted last Tuesday in his annual address. Just look how low COVID infection rates have fallen in the CDC’s most recent data graph.

The CDC reported “As of February 23, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (75,208) decreased 37.7% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (120,761).”

Those Americans still holding back from work because they are caring for children or elderly parents, or for a myriad of other reasons due to fears from contagions, need no longer to do so. The Omicron variant has been tamed, and there are no other variants on the horizon at the moment.

The latest initial unemployment claim stats confirm that work is the best place to be now that the US economy is roaring again, wages are rising and almost 11 million job openings beckon.



New applications for unemployment benefits fell by 18,000 to a two-month low of 215,000 in the last week of February, pointing to a pickup in hiring and declining layoffs as the economy rebounded from an omicron-induced lull.

The 10-year FRED graph of initial unemployment claims shows just how normal the claims’ numbers have become. Initial jobless claims declined from a revised 233,000 in the prior week,  the Labor Department said Thursday.

Now that serious sanctions are in place, what will happen? Oil prices will surge

And inflation may be prolonged, which is another reason unemployed workers won’t remain on the sidelines much longer.

And what about the Russian Oligarchs support of Putin’s war with Ukraine? How much longer can they hold out? France just announced the first seizure of an Oligarch’s yacht In Marseille, and Treasury Secretary Yellen just announced she will be doing the same.i

“We have made it a priority to go after oligarchs or Russian elites who are key to President Putin’s corrupt power,” Yellen said. She added that Treasury, along with the Justice Department and U.S. allies, plans to “uncover, freeze and seize their wealth around the world.”

Inflation won’t recede soon with soaring oil prices, but that is also a sign that higher economic growth is in the cards for the New Year, as consumers and business continue to spend their excess savings.

Both Institute of Supply Management surveys for the U.S. service and manufacturing sectors are still in the mid-fifties, signaling that they could even go higher if it wasn’t for the supply and labor shortages.

So let’s see how long Putin’s oligarchs can hold out and support his killing of Ukrainians, which seems to be the only thing that could stop him? My guess is not for long.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen