Sorry Goldman, in the race to downgrade the US to 0.0001% above contraction, you are still well behind The Fonz in coolness. Frankly, following your December 2010 report you are not even cool enough to pass off for Richie Cunningham. But your third downgrade of US GDP in a month, this time slashing Q3 and Q4 GDP is surely a valiant attempt at regaining some of the Fonz pre-Jersey Shore panache. Keep at it. Another year of being just thiiiiis much behind the curve, and atoning for your shark jumping adventures, and you may be cool again. From a just released report by recent addition to the Goldman economics team (supposedly Jan was too busy elsewhere) Zach Pandl: "In light of the downshift in the data this week, we are cutting our second-half growth forecasts further. We now expect GDP growth of 1.0% in Q3 and 1.5% in Q4, both down from 2.0% previously. These changes reduce our forecasts for full-year 2011 GDP growth to 1.5% from 1.7%. Exhibit 1 shows the details." Now: who will join Zero Hedge in calling for negative GDP in Q3 and most likely Q4 (absent QE3; with QE3 the BEA will mysteriously find another 4-5 GDP percent hidden under the carpet). Far more importantly, Goldman once again explains what to expect at next week's Jackson Hole. We say importantly, because while Goldman is about as clueless at most at predicting the future, when it comes to monetary policy, Goldman determines it. So it is always useful to pay attention: after all Hatzius "predicted" the QE2 announcement roughly about a year ago to the dot.
On cutting GDP:
From already quite low growth rates, it appears that the US economy is losing further momentum. According to our Current Activity Indicator (CAI), underlying growth was about 1.5% (annual rate) as of July, and several major indicators for last month— nonfarm payrolls, retail sales, industrial production— were surprisingly strong. However, timelier survey- based data have turned down sharply, and weakness in the hard statistics seems likely to follow with a lag.
It is true that data on August activity is still relatively limited at this point. But of the major indicators released so far, one was weak (the Empire State index) and two were exceptionally weak (Consumer Sentiment and the Philadelphia Fed index). The most positive signal has come from jobless claims, which are roughly unchanged from last month and down from the spring. The survey data could potentially have been biased downward by volatility in financial markets and the contentious debate over the debt limit. But we do not want to take that argument too far: these are important cyclical indicators, and they are pointing to even weaker growth ahead. Updating the model from last week's US Economics Analyst with the latest data on equity prices and housing starts and an estimated value for the August ISM gives a probability of about one-third that the economy is currently in recession.
In light of the downshift in the data this week, we are cutting our second-half growth forecasts further. We now expect GDP growth of 1.0% in Q3 and 1.5% in Q4, both down from 2.0% previously. These changes reduce our forecasts for full-year 2011 GDP growth to 1.5% from 1.7%. Exhibit 1 shows the details.
And on what to expect next week:
Will Bernanke Move Mountains?
Against this challenging backdrop, Chairman Bernanke will deliver his address to the Fed’s annual Jackson Hole Conference next week.2 Given rising recession risks, worsening financial market conditions, and the FOMC’s surprisingly aggressive moves at its last meeting, investors are probably right to be focusing intensely on the event. We expect his speech to contain three main elements:
1. Discussion of the dimmer growth outlook. The statement from the last FOMC meeting made clear that the committee made a significant change to its growth forecasts. The statement said that growth had been “considerably slower” than expected this year, that temporary factors “account for only some of the recent weakness”, and that “downside risks to the economic outlook have increased”.
The speech will be an opportunity for Bernanke to describe the Fed’s revised view in more detail. While he is likely to be downbeat about recent developments, we expect that he will still argue that the conditions for an acceleration later this year and in 2012 remain in place. The last post-meeting statement said the committee “anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only gradually”, which hints at a slightly above-trend growth outlook.
Recent comments from other Fed officials have been moderately constructive on growth. For instance, Cleveland Fed President Pianalto said earlier today that she expects growth of about 2% this year and 3% in 2012. New York Fed President Dudley also said this week that recent data were “at worst mixed”, and that growth will be “significantly firmer” in the second half. With annualized GDP growth in the first half of 0.8%, this is not an especially optimistic view, but it suggests Bernanke could sound positive relative to the current market consensus.
2. Defense of earlier policy actions. Weakness in growth and renewed questions about Fed easing have naturally raised questions about the effectiveness of its tools. We expect that Bernanke will address this issue directly in his speech, as he did in Congressional testimony last month. At that time, Bernanke argued that quantitative easing (QE) was effective in reducing the risk of deflation, emphasizing the rise in market- based measures of inflation expectations. He also said QE was helpful in “shoring up economic activity”.
It may be difficult for Bernanke to lean on these arguments today. The weakness in activity—and especially the downward revisions to GDP in late July—casts doubt on the claim that asset purchases have stimulated growth, at least in the eyes of many observers. Inflation expectations remain around levels consistent with the Fed’s target, but if higher inflation expectations are the only impact from QE, it would make little sense to ease now.
We think Bernanke will stick to a few main points. First, he will probably reiterate that the Fed’s expectations for the impact of QE were low, and therefore that slow growth does not necessarily imply that QE failed. At last year’s Jackson Hole speech he said that “central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems”; a repeat of this type of language seems likely. Second, he could argue that securities purchases ward off the tail risk of deflation, and that if the economy slipped into recession, deflation risk would return. Third, we think he could again list the many studies about QE and their quantitative estimates of the impact on growth. Emphasizing the positive effects of past asset purchases would implicitly help justify further action.
3. Review of the easing options. The Fed has three main easing tools: 1) communication; 2) asset purchases; and 3) cutting the interest rate on excess reserves. At the August meeting, it exercised option #1 by making a conditional commitment to keep the funds rate low until mid-2013. Option #3 is often mentioned but in our view is unlikely for several reasons. That leaves only option #2, asset purchases.
We believe Bernanke’s Jackson Hole speech will include a detailed discussion of the potential for more easing through large-scale asset purchases. A variety of indicators suggest many investors already expect more QE. For instance, a recent CNBC survey shows that more than $300bn of purchases may already be priced in. The sharp decline in forward real rates is also partly related to QE expectations, in our view (Exhibit 2).5 Based on our conversations with clients, we believe investors would be very surprised if the speech did not include a discussion of asset purchases.
We see two main reasons why Fed officials may prefer to change the composition of the balance sheet as a first step. First, as we showed in Monday’s US Daily, if used aggressively this could have a sizable impact. For example, if the Fed were to sell its Treasury securities that mature over the next two years and buy securities in the 10- to 30-year part of the curve—apportioning them based on amounts available in the market—it could take a similar amount of duration risk onto its balance sheet as in QE2 (around $350bn in 10-year equivalent terms, or 80-90% of QE2). The policy could be scaled up further by weighting purchases toward even longer maturities, or by changing the mix of the mortgage portfolio.
Second, policies that keep the size of the balance sheet (and excess reserves) unchanged may be less controversial among politicians and the broader public. A detailed discussion of possible changes in balance sheet composition seems a likely component of the Jackson Hole speech.
Bernanke may of course also discuss conventional QE. Arguments in favor of this approach include a less complicated exit strategy—if securities mature faster, the Fed may not need to sell actively—and potentially a larger impact on confidence and expectations. We do not think Bernanke will signal anything more unconventional, such as a higher inflation target, price level targeting, or a long-term interest rate target.6 However, these ideas may turn up in the FOMC minutes published on August 30.
While listing the easing options looks probable, Bernanke is very unlikely to pre-commit to taking action next week. This is a monetary policy decision, and any announcement would come at an FOMC meeting. In addition, core inflation continues to accelerate, and Fed officials seem to have a rosier outlook than our forecast or the consensus. While we expect additional QE and the odds are rising at the margin, it is not yet a done deal.
Remember: central bank policy only works when it is a surprise.