Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Will February Employment Report Be?

Popular Economics Weekly

We are already getting predictions on the upcoming (Friday) U.S. unemployment report. If in line with last year’s 3 million total, it works out to 250,000 nonfarm payroll jobs (i.e., excluding the self-employed) per month. The Bureau of Labor Stats payroll report is considered the more accurate of the 2 reports—Establishment (payrolls only) vs. Household (includes self-employed) surveys—since the Establishment sample of businesses surveyed is much larger.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Some 257,000 jobs were added to payrolls in January, a surprising total, considering it was in mid-winter. All sectors were hiring, and higher personal incomes and expenditures are the result.

Personal incomes are rising at a healthy 4.6 percent annual clip, and expenditures are rising 3.5 percent per annum. Whereas the so-called PCE price deflator showed just 1.3 percent annual inflation, and it is the preferred Federal Reserve inflation indicator.

So we have once again a goldilocks economy—not too hot or cold—with low prices fueling robust consumption. That is why consumers are remaining confident of their financial future, as the latest confidence and sentiment surveys confirm.

Buttressing that optimism is a little noticed Misery Index that only pops up when there is an economic inflection point, such as now with the uncertainty as to when the Fed will begin to raise interest rates. The Misery Index that combines unemployment and inflation rates is at an all-time low, at the moment. The last time it was this low is 2006, during the housing bubble.

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It is the sum of the unemployment + inflation rates, which today are 5.7 percent + 1.3 percent, respectively, which equals 7 percent! Less misery is less spending pain felt by the consumer. And less pain means shopping becomes more pleasurable, hence fuels higher profits and more job formation.

We therefore see solid job formation in 2015, even if interest rates begin to rise sometime later in the year.

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Governor Scott Walker vs. Education

Financial FAQs

It is hard to believe, but prospective presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s main platform seems to be his antipathy towards education, and higher education, in particular. He has obfuscated his near hatred of higher education to date by getting his Republican-Controlled Legislature to first ban public union collective bargaining, especially unions for teachers and public health nurses.

But the veil that has obscured his anti-education agenda is lifting. His latest salvo is directed at the University of Wisconsin. He proposes not only to cut its budget, but proposed downsizing its mission from that of higher education to supply workers, whoever they might be. Walker’s new budget proposal would slash $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years. That’s a 13 percent reduction in state funding.

That might be explained by the poor performance of the Wisconsin economy since he took office—an economy now ranked below all other comparable Midwestern states.

A harbinger of what Walker might face came in an immediate uproar on social media this month after his staff proposed changing the university’s focus on the pursuit of truth, known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” to a grittier focus on “workforce needs.”

"Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition," is part of the University of Wisconsin's mission statement.

What is wrong with that mission, you ask? It speaks to a well-educated mind, is Walker’s problem, apparently. If Walker gets his way, that sentence, along with "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth," would be entirely cut from the charter. Walker also seeks to cut statements reinforcing the university's commitment to working with out-of-state institutions and its prioritization of "programs with emphasis on state and national needs."

In its place, Walker proposes language stating Wisconsin only provides a state education because it is constitutionally required and among its top priorities are meeting "workforce needs." So the U. of Wisconsin should be down-sized to a trade school?

On reflection, Walker’s anti-education agenda fits right in with the current Republican Party’s prejudice against modern education in general, scientific knowledge and empirical facts in particular, such as the denial of global warming. Republicans have even proposed abolishing the Department of Education, a cabinet position, which helps to keep their supporters in the poorer red states literally ignorant of those facts that would better their lives.

It was in 2011 that Walker pushed through a law, Act 10, that slashed the power of public employee unions to bargain, and cut pay for most public sector workers.  As a special slap to teachers, Walker exempted the unions of police, firefighters and state troopers from the changes in collective bargaining rights but not educators. 

Teachers protested for a long time, closing schools for days, but the law passed, and the impact on teachers unions in Wisconsin has been dramatic: according to this piece by Washington Past columnist Robert Samuels. The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third, and the American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, has seen a 50 percent decline.

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Graph: Wisconsin Budget Project

The effect on Wisconsin’s economy has been even more dramatic. The latest comprehensive state employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) reveals that Wisconsin continues to lag both the national rate of job growth as well as the rates of employment gain in most other states. Between December 2012 and 2013, Wisconsin gained 26,816 jobs, posting an annual employment growth rate of 0.98 percent, significantly trailing the national job growth rate of 1.75 percent during the same period.

Thus, Wisconsin’s year-over-year job growth in fourth quarter of 2013 was just slightly over half the national rate – a level of underperformance that has been consistent since 2011. Overall, Wisconsin ranked 37th among the 50 states in the rate of total employment growth between December 2012-13. Wisconsin trailed every single neighboring Midwestern state (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio) in year-over-year employment growth between December 2012-13.

Walker is destroying Wisconsin’s economy, in other words. Right now he is pushing to demolish union organizing once and for all with his proposal to make Wisconsin a Right to Work state, which will further depress its economy. And this man wants to run for President of all 50 states?

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Monday, March 2, 2015

Pending Home Sales, Consumer Confidence Looking Better

The Mortgage Corner

Oh, the winter is freezing consumers, as I’ve said! It affected January existing-home sales, but the NAR’s January Pending Home Sales index rose sharply 1.7 percent. So pending sales of contracts signed may give a boost to existing-home sales in coming months that fell slightly in January.

Part of the reason for slightly lower home sales, according to the NAR, is that homeowners aren’t changing homes every 7 years on average as they used to. It’s now 10 years, probably due to the busted housing bubble, loss of so much housing equity, and the Great Recession, of course.

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Graph: Econoday

But this marks the fifth consecutive month of year-over-year gains for pending sales with each month accelerating the previous month's gain, said the NAR.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says for the most part buyers in January were able to overcome tight supply which highlights the underlying demand that exists in today's market. “Contract activity is convincingly up compared to a year ago despite comparable inventory levels,” he said. “The difference this year is the positive factors supporting stronger sales, such as slightly improving credit conditions, more jobs and slower price growth.”

“All indications point to modest sales gains as we head into the spring buying season,” says Yun. “However, the pace will greatly depend on how much upward pressure the impact of low inventory will have on home prices. Appreciation anywhere near double-digits isn't healthy or sustainable in the current economic environment.”

He is right, of course. With consumer confidence is at an all-time, post-recession high, which also bodes well for housing demand—though February's consumer confidence index fell 7.4 points to 96.4 from a revised 103.8 in January which was a 7-1/2 year high.

The dip was centered in the expectations component which fell a very steep 9.8 points to 87.2. Could it just be the winter blahs, when jobs are harder to find in part because winter weather keeps consumers from spending more?

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The second main component of the confidence index, consumers’ present situation, also dipped but less severely, down 2.7 points to 110.2. Here, a closely watched sub-component, jobs currently hard to get, rose 1.6 percentage points to 26.2 percent which is mild indication of weakness for the monthly employment report that comes out this Friday, let us not forget.

The employment consensus is for 230,000 (Wrightson ICAP) to 235,000 (Bloomberg) jobs, a decline in the unemployment rate to 5.6 percent (reversing last month’s surprise uptick), a 0.2 percent increase in average hourly earnings and an unchanged 34.6-hour workweek.

February unemployment reports tend to start out slow and be revised in coming months, as it has in past years—by as much as 50,000 additional jobs, which would boost consumers’ attitudes.

Reuter’s Wrightson ICAP Research says February nonfarm payrolls have been revised over the subsequent two reports in each of the past five years by an average of more than 50K. Their forecast assumes that February nonfarm payroll growth this year will end up somewhere around 280K, so the preliminary estimate probably won’t be quite as strong as the final value. (Their forecast also assumes that the net revision to December and January this month will be positive but probably 25K or less).

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fed Chair Yellen Still Dovish, Economy Still “Sluggish”

Popular Economics Weekly

Federal Reserve Chairperson Yellen wants to keep interest rates as low as possible for at least the “next couple of FOMC meetings”, even as there are signs that economic growth is accelerating. This is in the face of the newly Republican-dominated Congress threatening to curb its powers, because their deficit hawks want to raise rates sooner, and we know what happened in Europe and Japan when this happened—their 2nd and 3rd recessions since 2008.

Why? Because raising rates too soon could stop many consumers from spending, because income growth is poor and consumers are only beginning to feel confident enough to spend. Whereas the deficit hawks see inflation where there is none at the moment, since they are mainly creditors that see any deficit as endangering the value of the debt they hold.

Yellen said inflation measures still show inflation too low to sustain growth, and wage pressures are still not enough to sustain higher household incomes, which is the main driver of inflation. Or, in her words, the Fed doesn’t want to raise rates “until the economy is fully healed”

However, “If economic conditions continue to improve,” said Dr. Yellen, “as the Committee anticipates, the Committee will at some point begin considering an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate on a meeting-by-meeting basis. …However, it is important to emphasize that a modification of the forward guidance should not be read as indicating that the Committee will necessarily increase the target range in a couple of meetings.”

The most recent measures do show accelerating growth. For instance, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI), a proxy for nationwide growth, edged up to +0.13 in January from –0.07 in December. It is one of the broadest measures of economic activity, outside of the Gross Domestic Product quarterly report. Three of its four broad categories of indicators that make up the index increased from December, and only one of the four categories made a negative contribution to the index in January.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Too low inflation still remains a problem, you say? Yes, and is the main reason Yellen wants to keep interest rates at their lowest level. It’s now negative for the first time in the year, and even since 2009. There was another huge drop in energy prices. Overall consumer price inflation fell sharp 0.7 after declining 0.3 percent in December. Energy plunged 9.7 percent after dropping 4.7 percent in December.

Gasoline plummeted 18.7 percent, following a 9.2 percent fall in December. Food prices were unchanged, following a rise of 0.2 percent in the previous month. Core inflation excluding food and energy was just 0.2 percent after a modest 0.1 percent rise December, and is up 1.6 percent in a year.

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Graph: Trading Economics

That is the main reason the Fed wants to keep rates low as long as possible. Low interest rates boost both housing prices and sales, lower debt levels, and higher valuations enable more homeowners to sell, refinance, and move, if necessary. So Yellen’s last two days of testimony should encourage those fence sitters, as well as give all consumers more confidence in their future economic well-being.

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

January Existing Home Sales, Mortgage Applications Dip

The Mortgage Corner

Oh, the winter freeze! It seems to put the housing market into a deep freeze, as well. Total existing-home sales, completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, fell 4.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million in January (lowest since last April at 4.75 million) from an upwardly-revised 5.07 million in December, said the NAR. Despite January’s decline, sales are higher by 3.2 percent than a year ago.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the housing market got off to a somewhat disappointing start to begin the year with January closings down throughout the country. “January housing data can be volatile because of seasonal influences, but low housing supply and the ongoing rise in home prices above the pace of inflation appeared to slow sales despite interest rates remaining near historic lows,” he said. “Realtors® are reporting that low rates are attracting potential buyers, but the lack of new and affordable listings is leading some to delay decisions.”

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Better news was that the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) edged up to +0.13 in January from –0.07 in December, with industrial production up. Three of the four broad categories of indicators that make up the index increased from December, and only one of the four categories made a negative contribution to the index in January.

The index is a weighted average of 85 indicators of national economic activity drawn from four broad categories of data: 1) production and income; 2) employment, unemployment, and hours; 3) personal consumption and housing; and 4) sales, orders, and inventories.

Total existing-home inventory at the end of January increased 0.5 percent to 1.87 million existing homes available for sale, but is 0.5 percent lower than a year ago (1.88 million). Unsold inventory is at a 4.7-month supply at the current sales pace – up from 4.4 months in December. The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $199,600, which is 6.2 percent above January 2014. This marks the 35th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

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This follows the Conference Board’s LEI, which slowed to a not-so-strong plus 0.2 percent versus a slightly downward revised plus 0.4 percent in December. Once again the yield spread is the biggest positive for the index reflecting the Fed's near zero rate policy. Consumer expectations are the 2nd largest positive in the month, though one that may reverse in the next report given last week's plunge in the consumer sentiment index. Credit indications, which continue to be very positive in this report, are the 3rd largest positive.

Both indexes show increased employment in 2015, which should mean home sales will pick up with the selling season and better weather in the spring. “Although sales cooled in January, home prices continued solid year-over-year growth,” adds Yun. “The labor market and economy are markedly improved compared to a year ago, which supports stronger buyer demand. The big test for housing will be the impact on affordability once rates rise.”

Real estate is showing more signs of life, with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index rising again. Data released for December 2014 shows a slight uptick in home prices across the country. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which covers all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.6 percent annual gain in December 2014 versus 4.7 percent in November.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Nine cities reported monthly increases in prices ... Both the 10-City and 20-City Composites saw year-over-year increases in December compared to November. The 10-City Composite gained 4.3 percent year-over-year, up from 4.2 percent in November. The 20-City Composite gained 4.5 percent year-over-year, compared to a 4.3 percent increase in November.

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Graph: US Census Bureau

And lastly, January new-home sales were unchanged, but prices rose. Sales of new single-family houses in January 2015 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 481,000, which is not enough product to keep prices in the affordable range. This is 0.2 percent below the revised December rate of 482,000, but is 5.3 percent above the January 2014 estimate of 457,000.

“In a promising sign, new home sales have been trending at post-recession highs for the past two months,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “As the economy strengthens and mortgage rates remain low, we can expect continued upward movement in the housing market this year.”

So still record low interest rates (i.e., 3.50 percent conforming fixed rates) are keeping homebuyer and refinancers interested, but not enthusiastic.   And we believe mortgage rates will remain low, as evidenced by Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s latest congressional testimony, which hinted that said rates could remain low for much of this year.

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Enslavement of the Middle Class

Financial FAQs

It is becoming obvious that the American middle class (topic dujour among presidential candidates these days) has been enslaved by an ideology that only benefits the wealthiest among US. It is an ideology of austerity that has prevailed in the U.S. at least since the 1980s, and Paul Krugman says is putting Europe into its Second Great Depression.

It is really an economic ideology of the 18th century first formulated by Adam Smith—of fewer government services and lower taxes that has made corporations all powerful with the greatest profits in their history, left American workers with little or no control over their livelihoods, and resulted in the greatest income inequality since the 1920s.

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Such an insidious ideology has kept the poorest states poorer, caused declining investment in education (our seed corn for future entrepreneurs), is quickly degrading our public infrastructure, and even the ability to protect ourselves. President Obama’s State of the Economy report and latest speeches have made it obvious. The greatest income inequality since the 1920s is here to stay, unless there are major changes in economic policies.

That is why most Americans (at least the 90 percent) have become harried, 24/7 workers with little vacation time, poor health care options (in spite of Obamacare), too expensive educational opportunities, too few well-paying jobs, and little protection from the globalization that stronger labor laws would bring.

Those policies have been called supply-side economics, under the theory that giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest by reducing capital gains and maximum tax rates, while shrinking government investment and oversight, would induce the wealthiest to put their money into productive investments, thus creating more jobs.

But that never happened. When President Reagan cut the maximum income tax rate from 70 percent that prevailed in the 1970s to 50 percent, it and 2 recessions created the largest budget deficit of that era, which is why he instituted 11 tax hikes to bring the budget back into a semblance of balance. This was all catalogued by his budget director, David Stockmen in The Triumph of Politics.

Then we have GW Bush’s further tax cuts on both maximum income tax rates to 35 percent and capital gains to their lowest in modern history that so depleted tax revenues it created the largest budget deficits in history, and ultimately the Great Recession.

It’s no use sugar coating the truth any longer. Since the end of the Great Recession, the top 1 percent of income earners have garnered 96 percent of total income since 2009, after a brief dip. And Americans still have the greatest income inequality of the developed western world.

Why could such inequality be here to stay? In part because so much wealth has flowed to so few, and it is easy to buy influence in this country. The most obvious receivers of such largesse are the conservative members of Congress, mostly Republicans, who continue to block the economic reforms that would better the lives of those that live on Main Street.

Nobelist Paul Krugman said as much in his latest NYTimes Oped: “So what does it say about the current state of the G.O.P. that discussion of economic policy is now monopolized by people who have been wrong about everything, have learned nothing from the experience, and can’t even get their numbers straight?... Clearly, failure has only made them stronger, and now they are political kingmakers. Be very, very afraid.”

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Graph: CEA Report

The White House just released their Council of Economic Advisors 2015 Report, chaired by Jason Furman. It said, “The second important factor influencing the dynamics of middle-class incomes is inequality. This, too, is a global issue. In the US, the top 1 percent has garnered a larger share of income than in any other G-7 country in each year since 1987 for which data are available, as shown in the above graph.”

It should be clear what must be done to remove the obstacles that hold back most Americans from a better life. Let us start by jettisoning the 18th century myth which enslaves all economic classes, a myth that only holds us back in the 21st century. Indiscriminately lowering taxes while minimizing government services and oversight hasn’t improved the lives of anyone except the wealthiest among us.

Harlan Green © 2015

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Housing Starts, Builder Optimism Dips

The Mortgage Corner

Nationwide housing starts fell 2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.065 million units in January, according to newly released data from the U.S. Commerce Department. This drop was mainly due to a 22.2 percent decrease in the Midwest, hit hard by winter weather.

And home builders’ sentiment also fell slightly from 57 to 55 percent, meaning a majority of those surveyed are optimistic that 2015 will be a good year for housing construction.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Single-family housing production fell 6.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 678,000 in January while multifamily starts rose 7.5 percent to 387,000 units. This is 2.0 percent below the revised December estimate of 1,087,000, but is 18.7 percent above the January 2014 rate of 897,000.

"After a strong single-family report in December, it is not surprising to see some pull back in January," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "With continued job creation and a growing economy, single-family production should make gains in the year ahead."

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Though builder sentiment dipped, it was very good for a winter report.
“For the past eight months, confidence levels have held in the mid- to upper 50s range, which is consistent with a modest, ongoing recovery,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Solid job growth, affordable home prices and historically low mortgage rates should help unleash growing pent-up demand and keep the housing market moving forward in the year ahead.”

So what does this say about housing in 2015? The Fed’s FOMC minutes were just released, and it looks like they might not be ready to raise interest rates in the middle of 2015, as had been hinted by several of the Fed Governors.

“In connection with the risks associated with an early start to policy normalization, many participants observed that a premature increase in rates might damp the apparent solid recovery in real activity and labor market conditions, undermining progress toward the Committee's objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation,” said the minutes. “In addition, an earlier tightening would increase the likelihood that the Committee might be forced by adverse economic outcomes to return the federal funds rate to its effective lower bound.”

Why is the Fed becoming more dovish viz interest rates? The Producer Price Index for wholesale prices is hovering perilously close to deflation. The PPI — a good proxy for wholesale costs — fell a record 0.8 percent in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department said today. It was the third decline in a row and the fifth in the past six months.

This is big news, folks, and could mean mortgage rates would remain low much longer than originally projected.

Harlan Green © 2015

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