Jay Powell, the US economy’s new leader

The stockmarkets took a real rollercoaster ride the week of February 5, with the Dow Jones plummeting more than 1,100 points in a single day’s trading on February 5, the most severe decline in its history in number of points, although only 4.6% in relative terms as compared to the 22.6% crash on October 19, 1987. The index shed a further 1,000 on February 8. US indices had put in spectacular rallies since the start of the year and their growth was not sustainable, so a change in trend was inevitable.

However, this market shift remains a clear sign from investors, and comes just as the Fed undergoes a change in leadership. Janet Yellen took her final bow on the evening of February 2 and Jerome Powell was sworn in on February 5. Market losses and the change in leadership at the Fed are connected: the US central bank is very powerful and the choices it makes over the months ahead will be crucial for both the US economy and market performances. Continue reading

The US economy’s worrying change of pace – My Monday column

Is the US economy’s current pace set to trigger major imbalances, disrupt the current cycle and spark off a significant downturn in economic activity?

The stockmarkets’ severe recent downturn reflects investors’ concerns on forthcoming trends for the global economy, and in particular the performances we can expect from the US. Firstly, they reacted to the change in stance from the Federal Reserve on forthcoming inflation trends, expected to converge towards the central bank’s target of 2% and stay there in the long term. Secondly, rising wages confirmed this idea of nominal pressure, even if the 2.9% gain announced in January’s figures was probably a result of the reduction in number of hours worked due to unusually cold weather conditions. Lastly, the handover at the Fed added another level of uncertainty. Janet Yellen did a good job of steering the US economy, will Jay Powell do the job equally well?
I have already written at length on these matters, and an article published on Forbes.fr will provide details on the uncertainties surrounding Powell’s arrival to chair the Fed. However, looking beyond these factors, a number of other questions are being raised about the US economy.

The first question involves economic policy and the way fiscal and monetary policies can coordinate against a backdrop of full employment. This coordination has worked pretty well so far. The US economy nosedived in 2009 and both policy areas instantly loosened: it was vital that every effort be made to avoid a drastic chain of events that would end up creating higher unemployment and a long-term hit to the standard of living. This approach was successful and the country hit its cycle trough in the second quarter of 2009, moving into an upward phase that has lasted ever since. Monetary policy continued to accommodate, but fiscal policy became restrictive in 2011 and then converged to a sort of neutral situation to avoid hampering the economy. This policy combination drove the US into one of the longest periods of growth it has enjoyed since the Second World War: the pace of GDP growth was admittedly not as brisk as before, but it did not trigger any major imbalances, as reflected by an economy running on full employment and continued moderate inflation, remaining below the Fed’s target. Continue reading

Growth, Inflationary Risk, and Euro Area Reforms – My Monday column

World growth has stopped accelerating and hit a plateau, inflationary risk is now more visible in investors’ behavior, and the ECB is advocating urgent reforms to the euro area’s institutional framework in order to make it more resilient.

After an acceleration in the last quarter of 2017, is world growth hitting a plateau? This is what manufacturing sector Markit surveys seem to suggest. The swift growth seen right throughout 2017 has ground to a halt, and while indices all stand at admittedly impressive levels reflecting swift growth in economic activity, they are no longer rising.

The global index was flat in January at 54.4 vs. 54.5 in December. This figure is very useful as it acts as a leading indicator of world trade trends. The relationship between the two metrics is important and world growth was so extensive and uniform precisely because this correlation worked well again in 2017. In this respect, monetary policy accommodation across the globe was a prerequisite for a recovery in growth, and in 2017 provided sufficient impetus to truly spark it off. Continue reading

The ECB and the Quest for Full Employment

“To reduce the European unemployment rate, the ECB must copy the Fed’s behavior”

Growth in the euro area picked up considerably in 2017 coming out at 2.5% vs. 1.8% in 2016, and hitting its highest point since 2007. The ECB played a lead role in this economic improvement: its policy of keeping interest rates very low by maintaining the main refinancing operations rate at 0% and via its asset purchase program on longer maturity securities was very effective.

These moves helped encourage Europeans to spend now by reducing the incentives to hang onto their wealth and spend it later, and in this respect, ECB President Mario Draghi skilfully steered the situation. The growth we are currently witnessing is driven by private domestic demand i.e. household spending and investment.

Unemployment trends
Yet unemployment remains high in the euro area, standing 1.4 points above end-2007 figures, when it came to 7.3%. This means that growth has not yet fully completed its upward adjustment. Continue reading