Friday, April 28, 2017

Weak Q1 growth, but stronger growth to come

First quarter GDP statistics were disappointing, with real growth of only 0.7% annualized (real GDP increased by a mere $29 billion in the quarter, almost a rounding error). However, real growth for the 12 months ended March was 1.9%, only modestly less than the 2.1% annualized growth rate for the current business cycle expansion. More interesting, perhaps, was the rate of inflation as measured by the GDP deflator (the broadest measure of inflation available): 2.3% annualized for the first quarter and 2.0% for the past 12 months. By this measure, the Fed has achieved its target inflation goal, and is fully justified in raising short-term interest rates. The brightest spot in the quarter was a 12% annualized jump in gross private fixed investment, since weak business investment has been the root cause of the current recovery's dismal, 2.1% annualized pace of growth. This may mark the beginnings of a pickup in growth in the years ahead, especially if Trump is able to slash the corporate tax rate as he proposes.

As the chart above shows, real GDP growth has essentially been on a 2% growth path since the middle of 2009. That's about one percentage point below its long-term growth path, and the "gap" between the two is now a bit over $3 trillion. That's a disappointing result, to be sure, but it also implies that the economy has tremendous upside potential, and that is extremely encouraging. As long-time readers will  know, I consider that the current recovery has been weak primarily due to rising tax and regulatory burdens and a dearth of business investment (and the two are most likely closely entwined). Rebuilding confidence, reducing the barriers to business investment and risk taking, and increasing the after-tax rewards to investment will thus be critical to closing the GDP gap. The potential rewards to successful growth-oriented policies are hard to overestimate.

Real gross private domestic investment (shown in the graph above) grew at a 3.7% annualized rate from 1966 through 2007, over which time real GDP growth grew at a 3.1% annualized rate. From the peak of the last business cycle in 2007 until March of this year, private investment has managed to post only 1% annualized growth. It's no wonder then that growth in the current expansion has been only 2.1%. Without more investment, there will be a scarcity of jobs, and a scarcity of the tools (machines, computers, software) necessary to boost the productivity of those who are employed. Investment is the key to prosperity, and so far, in the current business cycle expansion, it has been in scarce supply.

A subset of real gross private investment is gross private fixed investment, shown in the chart above. Largely driven by strong residential investment, it jumped at a 12% annualized rate in the first quarter.

As the chart above shows, inflation as measured by the GDP deflator (the broadest possible measure of inflation) was 2% in the 12 months ended March 2017. Forget deflation. The issue now is whether inflation is likely to accelerate from its current 2% pace. It's also significant that despite the sluggish growth of the past 6 ¾ years, inflation has on balance remained well above zero, a result that runs counter to the Phillips Curve theory of inflation, which holds that weak growth and lots of unused capacity tend to depress inflation. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon, not a function of growth.

The key to the future prosperity of the US economy is business investment. Only the private sector can create prosperity; the proper role of the public sector is to uphold the rule of law, ensure personal freedom, protect private property, and maintain the peace—not to create jobs. Prosperity is the result of people working smarter and harder—and taking on risk in the process. In order to get more prosperity we need more investment, and Trump's tax proposals—while far from ideal—go a long way to incentivizing private sector investment.

Lowering the tax rate on big and small businesses to 15% would significantly increase the after-tax rewards to business investment. One simplistic example: currently a business gets to keep 65 cents on every dollar of profit; under Trump's proposal a business would get to keep 85 cents on every dollar of profit. That works out to a 30% increase in the after-tax rewards to running, starting, and expanding a business. (It also suggests that reducing the corporate tax rate to 15% could boost the stock market—which is the present value of future after-tax profits—by 30%.) When rewards increase to such a significant degree it is only reasonable to expect to see a big increase in business investment, which in turn would result in more jobs, more income, and an expanding tax base. Cutting tax rates needn't result in reduced tax revenues, and cutting the corporate tax rate is the most logical place to start if you want to stimulate the economy. And by the way, we need to continue to cut regulatory burdens and simplify the tax code; shrink the government, and give the private sector the room and freedom to grow.

UPDATE: John Steele Gordon yesterday wrote forcefully (and in much greater depth than I do here) about why Trump's tax proposals would be very good for the economy. Trigger warning: he criticizes those who oppose the proposals.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Chemical activity and trade still strong

The American Chemistry Council's Chemistry Activity Barometer continued to rise in its latest April release. This index has been a good coincident at at times leading indicator of both industrial production and overall economic growth, and it continues to point to rising industrial production and continued growth of the US economy. At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence that points to increased global trade, at a time when industrial commodity prices have been rising significantly.

The Chemical Activity Barometer rose 5.2% in the past 12 months, one of its strongest showings in seven years (the strongest being the year ended March, when it rose 5.6%).

This indicator almost always goes flat or declines in advance of recessions. Currently it points strongly to continued expansion.

This indicator has been a good leading indicator of growth in industrial production and economic activity in general. Currently it points to a substantial increase in industrial production in coming months.

As the chart above shows, US goods exports have been rising for the past year, and that is corroborated by a sharp increase in outbound container shipments from the ports of Los Angeles. It's notable that US exports to China rose over 20% in the year ending February, after contracting over most of the 2014-16 period. Japan reports double-digit growth in both imports and exports in the year ending March, after declining over most of the 2015-16 period. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, the volume of global trade rose at an 8% annualized pace in the six months ended January 2017. Expanding global trade is an excellent indicator of improving economic conditions worldwide. Very encouraging.

Rising prices for industrial commodities over the past year or so—at a time when the dollar has been rising—tell us that global industrial activity has generally exceeded the expectations of commodity producers. Also very encouraging.

Yet despite the good global news, the US economy seems still to mired in mediocrity (i.e., 2% growth). That's not necessarily inconsistent with global strengthening, since trade is much less important to the US economy than it is to most other economies. But improving global fundamentals nevertheless provide strong underlying support for activity here.

It's premature to worry about a US downturn, and it's not unreasonable to remain optimistic that things will improve. It pained me today to learn that Trump wants to impose a 20% tariff on imports of Canadian softwood, since all that does is make life more expensive for US residents (UPDATE: Read Mark Perry's excellent critique of Trump's tariff here). But I'm encouraged that he seems pointed in a positive direction in the area of tax reform, and that there is important progress being made on healthcare reform.

French election relieves systemic risk

This is a brief update on the status of global systemic risk in the wake of yesterday's French elections. By rejecting extremists, the French have reduced the risk of a Eurozone/euro collapse. 2-yr Eurozone swap spreads and default credit spreads on French debt, both key measures of systemic risk, have declined significantly from their recent highs. Europe is not out of the woods completely, but investors nevertheless are breathing a sigh of relief. Equity markets, understandably, have moved higher as a result.

The chart above shows the price of credit default swaps on French debt (a form of insurance against default by the French government). They reached a high of over 70 bps at the end of February, and are now down to just under 35 bps. This puts them only modestly higher than their multi-year low of 27 bps, which was registered last September. For context, CDS spreads on German debt—perceived to be ultra-safe—are a bit less than 20 bps.

The chart above compares US and eurozone 2-yr swap spreads. At 34 bps, US spreads are at the high end of their "normal" range of 20-35 bps, whereas Eurozone spreads are still somewhat elevated. The worst of the panic seems to have subsided, thanks to yesterday's elections, but concerns linger.

Eurozone stocks are now up 25% from their lows of last summer. US stocks have far outpaced their Eurozone counterparts since 2009, but Eurozone stocks are starting to close the gap, having outpaced US stocks by 7% since last summer. 

As the chart above suggests, the French election outcome was a relatively minor "wall of worry" that, now partially resolved, has allowed stocks to float a bit higher.