The US economy is slowing but how quickly?

by Shaun Richards

A feature of recent times has been the way that economic growth forecasts have been trimmed somewhat. This morning has already seen two examples of that as the Swiss National Bank has suggested it will fall from 2.5% this year to 1.5% next, must be awkward that when your official interest-rate is already -0.75%. Next came the IFO Institute in Germany which did a little pruning to 1.5% this year and more of a short-back and sides to 1.1% in 2019. That provides some food for thought for the European Central Bank today as its largest economy slows.

The situation in the United States has been somewhat different, however, at least according to the official data. From the Bureau for Economic Analysis.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018 , according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 4.2 percent.

Yes it has slowed but to a rate most first world countries would currently give their right arm for. We can use the Atlanta Fed now cast to see where we stand this quarter.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the fourth quarter of 2018 is 2.4 percent on December 7, down from 2.7 percent on December 6.

They updated it on the basis of this new information.

The nowcast of fourth-quarter real final sales of domestic product growth decreased from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent after this morning’s employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nowcast of the contribution of inventory investment to fourth-quarter real GDP growth decreased from -0.23 percentage points to -0.33 percentage points after the employment report and this morning’s wholesale trade release from the U.S. Census Bureau.

So we see that whilst the level of economic growth remains relatively good the US has not escaped the cooling winds blowing.

Money Supply

This has proved to be a good guide to economic trends in 2018 and even better it remains widely ignored. Shorter-term trends are usually best encapsulated by narrow money so let us investigate last week’s monetary base data from the Federal Reserve which incorporates this.

The release also provides data on the monetary base, which includes currency in circulation and total balances maintained.

On the 5th of this month it was US $3.444 trillion but we immediately know that as Alicia Keys would say it has been Fallin’ as it was US $3.508 trillion on the 7th of November. We need to switch to the monthly numbers for an annual comparison and when we do so we see that in November it was 11% lower than a year before. If the phrase was not in use elsewhere this would be a credit crunch or to be more specific a type of cash crunch. Not a pure cash crunch as the currency in circulation has risen to US $1.705 trillion but reserve balances at the banks.

The fall has been driven by this.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month…….For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.

As you can see it is the central bank which is sucking reserve balances out of the system as indeed it was it who pumped them up. In a broad sweep we see that the QE era took the monetary base from a bit under US $0.9 trillion to US $4.1 trillion and now is pulling it back down.

Personally I think the main effect is coming from the reductions in holdings of mortgage-backed securities so if we pro rata that we get a monetary base reduction of say 5% but that is still a crunch.

Interest-Rates

These have been rising in the US another 0.25% still seems likely next week. An intriguing way of putting the international perspective on this has been provided by the Bond Vigilantes website.

 the de facto global discount rate, the 2-year US Treasury bond yield, has risen by almost 100 basis points (bps) over the year, and thus repriced global assets.

Higher US interest-rates effect the world economy and thus have a second order effect on the US economy via trade. Then there are the domestic effects.

the US 30-year mortgage rate hit 4.8% recently, up from 3.3% in 2016. Whilst most existing homeowners, like corporates, will have locked in those cheap rates, new borrowers face costlier loans, and this is already having an impact: US housing and real estate data is surprising to the downside at a rate that exceeds that seen even in 2008 and 2009:

So there has been something of a squeeze on the real economy from this source as well, although it will have weakened recently as US Treasury Bond yields have fallen back from their peaks.

Fiscal Policy

As we mull the developments above it seems that the fiscal stimulus provided by President Trump was not as ill-conceived as some have claimed. Of course views vary about fiscal stimuli as for example they are apparently good for France but bad for Italy. But the Donald has provided one into a slow down which has at least some of the textbook rationale. Where matters get more complex is the fact that the US has so far only really seen its boom slow and other countries such as Germany make a stronger case. But if we skip the absolute level argument the Donald does appear to have spotted the direction of travel.

Comment

We see that the US has not in fact escaped the economic changes in 2018 but it has had an advantage from starting at a higher level of economic growth. But the monetary data is applying a squeeze as are higher interest-rates and as ever we find it impacting in familiar places.

Whenever you saw the supply of unsold homes reach 7 months, a recession followed. It certainly did in 2008, despite the consensus of economic forecasters believing that economic growth would be 2.4% – it was actually negative. Why should we worry now? Well, the supply of unsold new homes is… 7.4 months (blue line).  (BondVigilantes )

That will trouble the US Federal Reserve as will this development.

BKX not far from yesterday’s low. There’s a real problem with the banks. And I don’t think I’m being an alarmist by simply saying something might be going on here that we don’t know about. ( @selling_theta )

Worries about the housing market and the banks? We know how central banks usually respond to those so no wonder the US Fed has cooled on future interest-rate rises. QE4 anyone?

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