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 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

A Worldwide Dilemma For 2018: Retreating Inward or Joining Forces?

Which side will win out in the current confrontation playing out across the world? The inward-looking attitude that has been so widespread these past months aims at taking power back locally. Meanwhile, the more cooperative approach involves joining forces to address global challenges and is based on continued dialogue. The choice between these two world views will be the key challenge for 2018.
The world is no longer quite so unanimous in its enthusiasm for globalization.

The cooperative dynamics we saw before the 2008 crisis are no longer the dominant force, and this shift was laid bare during the various elections and the referendums of recent times, as globalization and its cooperative approach did not lead to even distribution of wealth, particularly in developed countries. Branko Milanovic’s famous elephant curve was often held up as an example to demonstrate that the most badly off workers in the western countries had paid the price of globalization and swift growth in emerging countries, such as China and India. Continue reading

Are the Fed’s interest rate projections credible?

At the FOMC meeting on September 19 and 20, members charted the central bank’s so-called dot plot of expected rates for the years out to 2020, involving one interest rate hike in 2017, three in 2018, two in 2019 and only one in 2020, leading to an end figure of 2.875% vs. 1.125% currently. These figures published by the Fed are generally extreme, as the US central bank endeavors to influence investors’ expectations to suit its own narrative. Continue reading

The Fed normalizes its monetary policy but is not optimistic

As expected, the Federal Reserve has decided to start the process of reducing the size of its balance sheet. It will start next month in October. Details of the operation were presented in June and are available on a post send earlier today.

During her press conference, Janet Yellen has clearly announced the hierarchy between the two instruments the Fed can use to manage its monetary policy. The main instrument remains the fed fund interest rate. In “normal” time, this is the instrument that must be used by the FOMC to manage its monetary policy. The purchases of assets could become again an instrument for the Fed if the situation is exceptional. The interest rate is the rule and the assets’ purchase is the exception. But it was a relevant question as the current level of the fed fund is too low to have a strong impact on the economic activity in the case of a negative shock. A quantitative adjustment could be necessary. Janet Yellen sees a kind of complementarity between the two and the two instruments must remain in the central banker toolbox.  Continue reading