Posts Tagged ‘deficit’

Let’s Go Shopping!

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Despite rising gas prices, retail sales in the U.S. rose 0.8 percent in March, proof that consumers are still filling up their tanks, according to economists.  The rise in purchases follows a 1.1 percent increased in February that was the biggest in five months, according to a survey of 71 economists.  The gain sent retail sales to a record high of $411.1 billion, 24 percent higher than the recession low hit in March 2009.  “Retail sales are going to end the quarter on a positive note,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc.  “Underlying job growth is decent.”

Sales may have been helped by the unusually warm weather. The average temperature was 51.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest on record for the month in the past 117 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The economy expanded “at a modest to moderate pace” from mid-February through late March as manufacturing, hiring and retail sales strengthened, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Beige Book report.  The central bank is maintaining its benchmark interest rate near zero until late 2014 to encourage economic expansion.

Americans spent more on building materials, cars, electronics, furniture and clothing in March.  A separate Department of Commerce report showed that American companies restocked at a steady pace in February, which suggests that businesses expect consumers to continue spending this spring.  The retail sales report is the government’s initial monthly look at consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of economic activity.  The increase, along with other positive data on inventories and trade, suggests growth in the January-March quarter could be stronger than first thought.  Economists are estimating growth at an annual rate of between 2.5 percent and three percent in the 1st quarter, which is in line with the annual pace reported for the October-December quarter.  Americans are feeling greater confidence in the economy after seeing hiring strengthen over the winter.  Job gains were typically 246,000 per month from December through February.

In terms of cars, “The industry and consumers have been very resilient in the face of higher pump prices,” Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales at General Motors, said.  “The steadily improving economy is playing a role and so is pent-up demand and an improved credit market.”

Corporate stockpiles rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent, according to the Commerce Department. That’s less than January’s upwardly revised gain of 0.8 percent. The increase pushed stockpiles to $1.58 trillion which is nearly 20 percent more than the recent low hit in September 2009, just after the recession ended. Sales grew faster than inventories in February, rising 0.7 percent.  This is a good sign because it is evidence that companies aren’t building too much inventory, which can result in cutbacks in production in the future.

“The pace of inventory building is consistent with what you’d expect to see in a gradual expansion,” said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo.  Businesses are rebuilding their stockpiles after cutting them over the summer in fear of a double-dip recession.  Steady inventory growth in the 1st quarter, as well as a narrower trade deficit in February and stronger retail sales, has lifted the outlook for growth.

American households “have the income to propel their purchases now that we’re seeing job growth,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc., the third- best forecaster of retail sales for the 24 months ended in March.  “They have adjusted to the higher price of fuel.  The economy now needs to build on its own momentum.”

Bernanke Defends Fed Policy on Job Growth, Inflation

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Although the economy has improved in the past year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told lawmakers that they still must cut the growing budget deficit.  “We still have a long way to go before the labor market can be said to be operating normally,” Bernanke said in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee.  “Particularly troubling is the unusually high level of long-term unemployment.”

According to Bernanke, the 8.3 percent unemployment rate understates the weakness of the labor market.  He reminded the committee that it is necessary to also consider other measures of the labor market, including underemployment.  Although the jobless rate has fallen five months in a row, it is still higher than the 5.2 to six percent that the Fed believes is consistent with maximum employment.  The percentage of the unemployed who have been jobless for 27 weeks or longer rose to 42.9 percent in January, compared with 42.5 percent in December, according to the Department of Labor.

“Over the past two and a half years, the U.S. economy has been gradually recovering from the recent deep recession,” Bernanke said.  “While conditions have certainly improved over this period, the pace of the recovery has been frustratingly slow, particularly from the perspective of the millions of workers who remain unemployed or underemployed.”

At the same time, Bernanke cautioned the Senators against holding back short-term economic growth by cutting the budget too much in the name of controlling the deficit.

The upbeat jobs data – the private sector added 243,000 jobs in January, sending the unemployment rate down to 8.3 percent – caused some Senators to ask about the Fed’s monetary policy as the economy shows more signs of life.  The Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) recently said that it expected to keep interest rates at historically low levels through late 2014.  Bernanke said the strategy is a reaction to concerns that low interest rates might set off inflation by noting that prices did not rise significantly during 2011.

Rather, Bernanke said that the Fed is consciously taking a “balanced approach” to spur economic growth with low inflation.  Previously, Bernanke told the House Budget Committee that the Fed would not sacrifice its two percent inflation goal to jump start employment.  ‘Over a period of time we want to move inflation always back toward 2 percent,” Bernanke told Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), the committee’s chairman.  “We’re always trying to bring inflation back to the target.”

Bernanke offered a strong defense of the Fed’s inflation goal after Ryan suggested it should tolerate higher inflation to assure maximum employment.  “In looking at the two sides of the mandate, the rate of speed, the aggressiveness, may depend to some extent on the balance between the two objectives,” Bernanke said.  “We are always trying to return both objectives back to their mandate.”  Ryan, who has backed legislation to require the Fed focus exclusively on stable prices, said that he is “greatly concerned to hear the Fed recently announce that it would be willing to accept higher-than-desired inflation in order to focus on the other side of its dual mandate.”

Also during his testimony, Bernanke reiterated a promise to prevent Europe’s financial crisis from harming the American economy. “We are in frequent contact with European authorities, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely and take every available step to protect the U.S. financial system and the economy,” Bernanke told the Senate Budget Committee.

Economists Say U.S. Economy Is on the Road to Recovery

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

The American recovery is on the road to recovery, unless the mounting federal deficit slows its momentum.

A recent survey by Smart Brief and the international market research firm Ipsos of 841 financial professionals found that 67 percent think that stock prices will rise this year and that the country’s economic output will increase by 65 percent; another 59 percent said they expect unemployment to decrease slightly in the next 12 months.  The survey found that even such modest optimism is tempered by expectations of rising health care costs (88 percent); higher fuel prices (85 percent); rising prices for durable goods such as appliances, automobiles and consumer electronics (72 percent); and slightly higher interest rates (59 percent).  Additionally, 43 percent expect home prices to continue declining, while only 21 percent expect them to rebound; 34 percent expect no change.  By a margin of 70 percent – 30percent, respondents oppose allowing states to declare bankruptcy; 77 percent expect the nuclear disaster in Japan to drive greater investment and funding into renewable energy.

“Financial professionals are cautiously optimistic about economic prospects in the near term; indeed, they think that the overall scenario will improve, and they’re making business decisions on that basis, such as increased investment and hiring,” said Ipsos Managing Director Cliff Young.  “That being said, there are still concerns in the short to medium term about the increased costs of inputs such as fuel and durable goods.”

Larry Summers, former president of Harvard and architect of the Obama administration’s stimulus plan agrees, noting that “An economy in economic freefall has now recovered for 18 months,” he said.  “Make no mistake, the American economy has a feeling of normalcy that was completely absent in 2009 and that is a substantial achievement.”  Summers warned that the nation faces new challenges, including reducing the 8.9 percent unemployment rate, which he said is “far, far too high.”  He said it will be important for the US — and Massachusetts, in particular — to keep the life sciences industry strong.

To keep the recovery on track, the International Monetary Fund urged the United States to speed up efforts to slash the budget deficit.  “It is important the United States undertakes fiscal adjustment sooner rather than later,” said Carlo Cottarelli, director of the IMF Fiscal Affairs Department, the U.S. is projected to have a fiscal debt balance as a percentage of GDP of 10.8 percent in 2011, the biggest percentage among advanced countries. “Market concerns about sustainability remain subdued in the United States, but a further delay in action could be fiscally costly,” the IMF said.

According to the IMF, although most advanced economies have taken steps to tighten budget gaps, two of world’s largest economies — Japan and the United States — had delayed action to maintain their recoveries.  “Countries delaying adjustment in 2011 will face more significant challenges to meet their medium-term objectives,” the IMF warned in its updated “Fiscal Monitor” report.

Nearly Half of Americans Have Saved Only $25,000 For Retirement

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Americans’ confidence in having adequate money to retire on has hit a 20-year low, according to a survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI).  “We’re getting the most pessimistic results we’ve ever seen,” said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI’s research director and the study’s co-author.  “Those that are not well prepared are finally starting to get it.  The bad news is they’re not really reacting to it yet,” VanDerhei said.  “Hopefully this will be something that in the future will generate more savings.  People were shell shocked to some extent by what was going on in 2008 and 2009,” said VanDerhei.  “Many people wouldn’t even open their 401(k) statements when they came every quarter because they were too afraid to look.”  Now these same people are determining if they have adequate money saved.  This pessimism is despite the fact that the average balance of a 401(k) account rose to $71,500 at the end of 2010, an increase of approximately 11 percent when compared with 2009, according to Fidelity Investments.

Approximately 27 percent reported that they have little confidence about the amount of their retirement savings, an increase over the 22 percent reported last year.  The increase was driven by people with less than $100,000 in savings, according to the report.  The percentage of those with less than $25,000 in savings who lack confidence about having enough money in retirement soared to 43 percent in 2011, an increase from the 19 percent reported in 2007.  Five percent reported that their savings totaled more than $100,000, about the same as 2007.  Nearly 1,000 workers and 250 retirees aged 25 and older were interviewed for the survey.  EBRI has conducted the survey since 1990.

High unemployment rates, the size of the federal deficit, rising healthcare costs, lower returns on investment and worries about Social Security and Medicare funding have forced Americans to redefine retirement, VanDerhei said.  Regulators and legislators are examining the risk of Americans outliving their savings as life expectancies increase and funds have shifted from traditional pension plans to defined-contribution plans such as 401(k)s.  The Labor Department is examining whether it should be easier for employers to add annuities to retirement accounts.  Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) re-introduced legislation that would require 401(k) plan sponsors to inform workers of the projected monthly income they can expect at retirement based on their current account balance.

Not all the news in the EBRI study is bad. “In the past, investors in general were clueless about how big of a nest egg it takes to accomplish their goals,” said Harold Evensky, a Coral Gables, FL, financial planner.  “The silver lining of going through a bad economy is that people are substantially more realistic about what they need to do.”  Although the majority of people have not yet made major changes, at least 62 percent say it is possible for them to save $25 a week for retirement. One expectation may need to be adjusted.  Among the 1,004 workers surveyed, 74 percent plan to work in retirement to supplement their savings, but just 23 percent of the 254 retirees surveyed say they have worked in retirement.

Tools are available online to help Americans saving for retirement determine how far they are on the road to financial stability.  Generally speaking, financial planners suggest putting away between 11 and 15 percent of each paycheck for retirement.  Additionally, the Department of Labor’s website has a section called “Top 10 Ways to Prepare for Retirement”.

November Unemployment Matches 1980s Record

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

November Unemployment Matches 1980s RecordWith the U.S. unemployment rate rising to 9.8 percent in November,  the Department of Labor is concerned that economic recovery isn’t progressing as quickly as it would prefer.  For the 19th consecutive month, unemployment has stayed above nine percent — the longest streak on record, beating out previous highs in the 1980s.   Despite optimistic predictions that the nation would add 150,000 jobs in November, just 39,000 new jobs were added during the month, bringing unemployment up from 9.6 percent to 9.8 percent.

The Federal Reserve has decided to stay the course, saying the “economic recovery is continuing, though at a rate that has been insufficient to bring down unemployment.”   Worries about steady high unemployment were the main motivation behind the Fed’s decision to launch a second round of economic stimulus in November with a new bond-buying program.  Progress on reducing unemployment has been “disappointingly slow,” according to the Fed.

The persistent level of high unemployment shows that many Americans are still suffering, even though the National Bureau of Economic Research says the recession officially ended in June 2009.   The economy lost more than eight million jobs during the recession.  “To anyone around the dinner table, it means little,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute.  “The fact is, unemployment is going to remain flat for a year.”

“With the jobless rate stuck at 9.8 percent, the economy needs all the help it can get,” said Sung Won Sohn, economist at California State University.  Because nearly 40 percent of the unemployed have been jobless for more than six months, there is growing fear that the cause may be more profound than the deepest recession in more than 70 years.

Bernanke Sets Sights on the Growing Deficit

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Ben Bernanke has the deficit jitters.  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is warning that – even as the nation struggles to recover from the worst recession in 75 years – Congress must deal with an “unsustainable” level of debt.  “Our nation’s fiscal position has deteriorated appreciably since the onset of the financial crisis and the recession,” Bernanke said in testimony before the House Budget Committee.

Although Bernanke admits that the deficit was a necessary evil designed to bring the nation out of a deep recession, it has to be addressed in the long term because of the European debt crisis.  The budget deficit gap will narrow as the economy improves and stimulus programs are phased out.  The Fed chairman still sees several drags on the economy.  First and foremost is the jobless rate, which stands at 9.7 percent nationally, as well as the housing market that is plagued by foreclosures and short sales – of which 4.5 million are expected this year.  The good news is that the Fed’s recently updated Beige Book found that consumer and business spending are up slightly.  There is limited growth in the manufacturing, non-financial services and transportation sectors.

The housing market is expected to remain flat, thanks to the expiration of government-funded subsidies.  According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the number of people applying for mortgages has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years.  Tourism also is down, partly because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  Inflation also is low, making it probable that the Fed will keep the benchmark U.S. interest rate close to zero.

Rick Mattoon: Is the Recession Over?

Monday, March 8th, 2010

The Fed says the recession is over.Economic indicators show that the recession is over.  This is the opinion of Rick Mattoon, a senior economist and advisor in the economic research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and a lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  Rick’s primary research focuses on issues facing the Midwest regional economy.

In a recent interview for the Alter NOW Podcasts, Mattoon warned that most people probably don’t feel like the nation is coming out of a recession because there are few signs of job creation or easier access to credit.  One of the major concerns economists have is that this will be a double-dip “W-shaped” recession because once the bump from the $787 billion stimulus ends, there will be scant pent-up consumer demand for products and services to take the place of government spending.

One positive sign is an uptick in hiring by temporary employment agencies, which usually is considered to be a good harbinger of what future demand will be.  Another interesting theory about this particular recession in terms of jobs is the idea that companies adjusted their employee levels much more aggressively at the beginning of this cycle.  As a result, they are operating at extremely lean levels and so may hire earlier rather than later.

One problem is that there is a skills mismatch in the economy.  Many people who have lost their jobs don’t possess the right skills to find employment in growth industries such as clean energy or healthcare.  The challenge is training these individuals to bring their skills up to par.

 
icon for podpress  Rick Mattoon: Is the Recession Over? : Play Now | Play in Popup | Download