Category Archives: US Growth

22/6/18: ‘Skeptical’ IMF tends to be over-optimistic in its U.S. growth forecasts

In recent weeks, the IMF came under some criticism for posting relatively gloomy forecasts for the U.S. economy, especially considering the White House rosy outlook that stands out in comparison. see for example, WSJ on the subject here:

Which begs two questions:

  1. Does IMF have any grounds to stand on its forecasts divergence from the White House? and
  2. Are IMF forecasts for the U.S. economy actually any good?
Firstly, the grounds:

Per above chart, the IMF is not alone in being less than exuberant about forward growth forecasts for the U.S. In fact, it is White House that appears to be an outlier when it comes to 2020-2023 outlook.

Secondly, per the question above, I crunched through IMF's semi-annual forecasts releases from April 2013 on (period prior to 2013 is too volatile in terms of overall fundamentals to take any forecast errors seriously). The chart below summarizes these against the actual outrun:

On the surface, it appears that IMF forecasts in recent years carried massive errors compared to outrun. So I did a little more digging around. I took 1, 2, 3, and 4 years-ahead forecasts, averaged them over different forecast releases, and estimated 90 and 95 percent confidence intervals for these. Here is the resulting chart:
What does the data tell us? It says that IMF forecasts have, on average, overstated actual growth outrun. In other words, IMF forecasts have been over-optimistic, not excessively pessimistic, in the recent past. More that that, IMF's current (April 2018 WEO release) forecast for the U.S. GDP growth is even more optimistic than already historically optimistic tendencies of the Fund imply. In other words, even though the first chart above shows the IMF forecast for the U.S. growth to be pessimistic, compared to that of the White House, in reality, IMF's forecasts tend to be wildly optimistic.

Average error for 1 year ahead forecast for the U.S. in IMF releases has been 0.037 percentage points (very small), rising to 0.476 percentage points for 2 years ahead forecasts (more material error), and 0.867 percent for 3 years ahead forecasts. Augmenting data (to achieve larger number of observations to 2000-2006, 2011-2014 periods, 4 years ahead average forecasts has been 0.867 percentage points above the outrun growth. And so on.

So, to summarize:

  1. IMF is not unique in being less optimistic on the U.S. economy than the White House;
  2. IMF's history of forecast errors suggests that the Fund tends to be overly optimistic in its forecasts and that current official Fund forecasts are more likely to be reflective of significant over-estimation of future growth than under-estimation;
  3. IMF's forecasts more than 1 year out should be treated with some serious caution - something that applies to all forecasters.

30/4/17: The Scariest Chart in the World

The scariest chart in the world this week, indeed this month, comes from the U.S. and plots U.S. real GDP growth with 1Q 2017 print at just 0.7% y/y.

Yes, the print ranks 13th from the bottom for any positive growth quarter since 2Q 1947. And yes, the rate of growth is (a) preliminary (subject to revisions) and (b) seeming one-off (driven by fall-off in consumer demand, despite strong indicators on consumer confidence side). There are reason and heaps of arguments why this print should not be treated as huge concern and that things might improve in 2Q and on.

But... the really scary stuff is longer-term trend in U.S. growth. And that is illustrated in the chart below:

Look at the grey bars: these take periods of expansion in the U.S. economy and average rates of growth over these periods. Notice the patter? Why, yes, the average expansion-consistent rates of growth have fallen, steadily, since 1975 through today. Worse, controlling for volatile growth (average rates) in pre-1975 period, an exponential trend for average expansion-consistent growth rates (the yellow line) is solidly trending down.

The latest period of economic expansion is underperforming even that abysmal trend. And 1Q 2017 is underperforming that worse than abysmal average.

Now, let me highlight that point: yellow line only considers periods of consistent growth (omitting official recessions, and one unofficial recession of  2001). So, no: the depth of the Great Recession has nothing to do with the yellow line direction. If anything, given the depth of the 2008-2009 crisis, the most current grey bar should have been at around 4%, almost double where it sits today.

That is what makes the chart above the scariest chart of April. And will probably make it the scariest chart of May too.

9/2/16: Sales and Capex Weaknesses are Bad News for U.S. Jobs Growth

In a note from February 4, Moody Analytics have this two key messages about the U.S. economy, none pleasant:

  • Business sales are ‘mediocre’ outside energy sector, so that jobs growth singled by business sales outside energy sector should be slowing; and
  • Capex slowdown is about to smack jobs growth even further to the downside.

Take their numbers with a gulp of some oxygen.

Point 1: Business sales

The old-fashioned statistics don’t quite fudge stuff as well as the more modern hoopla about users, unique visits and signups deployed in the ICT sector. So here we go:

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing all is well outside of oil & gas. According to Bloomberg News, the 52% of the S&P 500 that has reported for 2015’s final quarter incurred over-year setbacks of -4.9% for sales and -5.7% for operating income. To a considerable degree, the declines were skewed lower by annual plunges of -34.2% for the sales and -64.2% for the operating profits of the latest sample’s 18 energy companies. For the 53% of the S&P 500’s non-energy companies that have reported for Q4-2015, sales barely rose by 0.6% annually, while the 2.6% increase by operating income fell considerably short of long-term profits growth of 6.5%.”

You’ve heard it right: in a recovery the U.S. is having, sales are up 0.6% y/y. Know of any real business that lives off something other than sales? I don’t.

Based on the Commerce Department broad estimate of business sales “that sums the sales of manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers. …even after excluding sales of identifiable energy products, what I refer to as core business sales posted annual increases of merely +2.1% for 2015 and +1.0% for Q4-2015”.

“…payrolls have been surprisingly resilient to the slowest growth by business sales excluding energy products since Q4-2009.” But, based on 3-mo average payrolls correlation with 12-mo average business sales data (estimated by Moody’s at 0.87), 2015 figures for sales suggest “…the average increase of private sector payrolls may descend from 2015’s 213,000 new jobs per month to 42,000 new jobs per month. Unless core business sales accelerate, 2016’s macro risks are most definitely to the downside.”

A handy chart:

Point 2: Capex headwind for jobs growth

“Business outlays on staff and capital spending are highly correlated. Over the past 33 years, the yearly percent change of payrolls revealed a strong correlation of 0.84 with the yearly percent change of real business investment spending.”

So, based on 2015 yearly increase in capital spending private sector payrolls “should have approximated 0.8% instead of the actual 1.9%. In other words, Q4-2015’s 1.6% yearly increase by real business investment spending favored a 91,000 average monthly increase by 2015’s payrolls, which was considerably less than the actual average monthly increase of 221,000 jobs.”

All of which puts into perspective what I wrote recently about the U.S. non farm payroll numbers here:

You really have to wonder, just how long can the U.S. economy continue raising the bar on additional bar staff hiring before choking on shortages of sales and capital investment?

16/10/15: Euro Area Inflation, via Pictet

An interesting chart highlighting the poor prospects for inflationary expectations in both Euro area and the U.S. via Pictet:

5yr/5yr swaps are basically a measure of market expectation for 5 year average inflation starting from 5 years from today, forward (so years 6-10 from today). This is a common referencing point for the ECB technical view of inflation expectations, and as the above clearly shows, we are heading for testing January 2015 lows.

Here’s Picket analysis (comments and emphasis are mine): “In September, headline inflation in the euro area dipped back into negative territory (-0.1% y-o-y) for the first time in six months.

"This weakness must be put into context though as it is primarily due to the steep slide in energy prices. If volatile components (food and energy) are stripped out, core inflation was steady at +0.9% y-o-y. Furthermore, prices of services, which better reflect domestic conditions, rose.

"Nonetheless, falling commodity prices, coupled with the rise in the euro’s trade-weighted value, caused the inflation outlook to worsen. Long-run inflationary expectations, as measured by the break-even swap rate, have been softening steadily since early July and have now reached their lowest level (1.56%) since February this year.

…In parallel, findings from economic and business surveys (PMIs, European Commission surveys) for the third quarter showed decent resilience despite the worries about the Chinese economy. They point to GDP growth of around 0.4% q-o-q in Q3 and Q4.”

Picket projects growth of 1.5% y/y for 2015, “led by domestic demand” that is expected to “continue to benefit from normalisation of the jobs market, subdued inflation, the gradual revival in consumer confidence and an upturn in lending to the private sector.”

In short, sensible view of inflation - low inflation, per Pictet is helping, not hurting the euro economy.

10/10/15: IMF: Un-Clued on U.S. Monetary Policy Normalisation

For all the positivity chatter about the return of the U.S. growth and 'normalisation' of the interest rates environment pushed into the world of unsuspecting journos by the IMF in its latest WEO Regional Outlook: Western Hemisphere, there is a nagging suspicion that something is strangely amiss.

Take the pesky problem of the U.S. monetary policy being exceptionally loose (or accommodative) since 2008. Chart below shows this by plotting a rate gap between policy rate and the 'neutral rate' with negative values indicating accommodation. Note, neutral rate is defined as the rate consistent with the economy achieving full employment and price stability over the medium term. Note also that adding in QE (over and above simple policy rate) pushes the metric of accommodation well beyond all historical comparatives in size (depth) and duration (length of time accommodation is present):

Now, naturally, one would expect these 'accommodative policies' to create a vast sea of surplus (relative to 'natural rate' consistent) liquidity (aka: money) in the U.S. system. And, naturally, one would expect that any 'normalisation' in the monetary policy would entail removing this surplus over time. Which, again, naturally, should translate into higher rates.

IMF obliges, providing us with this handy chart tracing forward expectations for U.S. policy rate:

The lift-off suggested in the chart above is rather steep and is steeper than the lift-off suggested by market pricing of futures (red line). In a sum, the chart above says: We have no idea what 'normalisation' will look like, but let's hope it will be more benign than the Fed signals and Primary Dealers Survey have been.

But here is a pesky little thing: You won't spot the same dynamics in IMF WEO forecast for either inflation or Libor rates. And the reason is pretty obvious: the more aggressive the Fed path in the chart above, the lower are growth projections in the chart below:

IMF forecasts from 2016 out to 2020 fall squarely in line with 2010-2015 averages for GDP growth (aka inflationary pressures) but are in excess of the 2010-2015 average for inflation itself.

In simple terms, despite all the talk about 'normalisation' of rates, the IMF is really saying that through 2020, we can expect the monetary environment (and with it the interest rates outlook) to be more benign than over pre-crisis average. Worse, inflation is expected to accelerate even though growth is expected to slip.

How does any of this square well with the idea of the Fed rate going to 3.75% as projected in the second chart above? Does any of this square well with projected 2016 interest rates for the Fed going to 1.2-1.3% against Libor under 1.2%? Does any of this square well with forecast inflation jump from 0.906% in 2015 to 1.404% and inflation outlook heading toward 2.322% by 2020?

In short, IMF expectations on both Libor and the Fed rate can be very tight.  Especially over the 2016-2018 horizon. If the Fed does stick to its signalled path (chart 2 above), growth will suffer relative to IMF projections (last chart above), despite already heading toward 2010-2015 average by 2019.

In the mean time, none of the IMF forecasts are consistent with Fed policies addressing in any reasonable way the built up of monetary policy excesses of the past.

Welcome to the world of forecasting after ZIRP. Shall we call it Fudge?..