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  • Spain's Path to Recovery

    It was bad enough to be in economic turmoil, but Spain had the additional indignity to be included in a group of economies that we labeled either PIGS or PIIGS (depending on whether we included both Ireland and Italy). The PIIGS were EU nations that had amassed so much public debt that they were threatening to bring down the EU economy as a whole. So it is nice to read about signs of a turnaround. At Project Syndicate , Michael Spence writes that investors are beginning to find Spain attractive again. Spain was not in an enviable position. The rapid deterioration of fiscal position after the crisis made any substantial countercyclical response impossible, while regulatory constraints limited the economy’s structural flexibility. The path to recovery, though difficult and lengthy, has been relatively clear and specific. First, unit labor costs needed to decline toward productivity levels to restore competitiveness – a painful process without the exchange-rate mechanism. In fact, there has been substantial post-crisis re-convergence toward German levels. Second, both capital and labor needed to flow to the tradable sector, where demand constraints can be relaxed as relative productivity converges. Like many other southern European countries, however, labor-market and other rigidities dramatically reduced the speed and increased the costs of structural economic adjustment, resulting in lower levels of growth and employment, especially for young people and first-time job-seekers. But Spanish policymakers and business leaders appeared to grasp the nature of the pre-crisis economic imbalances – and the importance of the tradable sector as a recovery engine. Recognizing that the economy could not benefit from a partial restoration of competitiveness without structural shifts, the government passed a significant labor-market reform in the spring of 2013. It was controversial, because, like all such measures, it rescinded certain kinds of protections for workers. But the ultimate protection is growing employment. With a lag, the reform now appears to be bearing fruit. Read The Gain in Spain here .
  • L.A. Times: Would-Be Home Buyers Held Back By Student Debt

    We'll be seeing some new data sets on home buying this week, and we'll spend a lot of air and cyber-ink trying to make links between home buying and overall economic growth. One of the factors that does not show up in the data: why people don't buy homes. One of the reasons is surely existing debt. And for a lot of would-be first-time home buyers, that existing debt is left over from college. L.A. Times reporter Tim Logan : The amount owed on student loans has tripled in a decade, to nearly $1.1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. People in their 20s and 30s — often the best-educated and highest-earning among them — owe most of that tab. That is keeping a crucial segment of home buyers on the sidelines, deferring one of the traditional markers of adult success. The National Assn. of Realtors recently identified student debt as a key factor in soft demand for home-buying this spring. A recent study by the trade group identified student loans as the top reason many home buyers delayed their purchase. Many more didn't buy at all. Surveys show today's adults value homeownership just as much as their parents did. But the shaky job market, higher debt loads, and the roller-coaster market of recent years is keeping many from pulling the trigger, said Selma Hepp, senior economist with the California Assn. of Realtors. "They're just postponing," she said. "It's the economy and the recession and what that generation has gone through." The share of buyers who are first-timers has dropped well below historical averages — 28% of California buyers last year, compared with 38% typically, according to CAR surveys. The absence of a new generation of customers could become a long-term problem for the industry, said Dustin Hobbs, spokesman for the California Mortgage Bankers Assn. Read Student debt holds back many would-be home buyers here
  • A New Primer on China From McKinsey

    Do you have an hour for China? That is, do you have an hour you can spare to understand the leading economic story of the century? McKinsey's Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel have written The One Hour China Book in an effort to bring us all up to speed on the key pieces to understanding what is happening in the world's most populous country and the impact of activity there on life everywhere. If you can't spare an hour just yet, here are the "six big trends" from the book, as shared at McKinsey Insights : Here's a little more on trend number 3: The American middle class was the world economy’s growth engine throughout the 20th century. Now, the engine is the Asia–Pacific region, which will account for two-thirds of the world’s middle class by 2030. While Chinese consumers’ focus on “value for money” has driven the rise of companies such as apartment builder China Vanke and Tingyi Holding Company—the business behind China’s dominant instant-noodle brand—buying habits are changing. As urbanization accelerates, consumer spending is becoming more like that of the West’s middle class. Urban Chinese are shopping to meet emotional needs, driving a skyrocketing demand for middle-class goods, food, and entertainment. As an example, China consumed more than 13 million tons of chicken in 2012—more than the United States. Tyson Foods’s China operations has facilities able to process more than three million chickens per week, and Chinese chicken consumption, which grew by 54 percent from 2005 to 2010, is expected to grow an additional 18 percent annually during the next five years. For additional evidence, look no further than the fact that the largest Chinese acquisition of a US company had nothing to do with technology, cars, or energy. In 2013, Chinese Shuanghui International spent $7.1 billion to buy American Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer and processor. It’s not surprising, then, that agribusiness is one of China’s hottest new industries. Almost every aspect needs to be improved, from land and water use to logistics and retail. Legend Holdings, the parent company of Lenovo, now lists modern agriculture as one of its five core areas, with a portfolio that includes kiwi and blueberry farming. Read All you need to know about business in China here .
  • Marketplace Whiteboard: The Wealth Effect

    As we learned from Andrew Kohut , a lot of Americans are not feeling it when it comes to the U.S. economy. Or, for many of them, when it comes to their own finances. And that makes it a little harder for the economy to keep picking up steam. As Paddy Hirsch explains in this Marketplace Whiteboard , when people feel wealthy, they spend more.
  • Economic Letter: 'Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises'

    In a new San Francisco Fed Economic Letter , economists Òscar Jordà , Moritz Schularick , and Alan M. Taylor try to settle the debate over whether private credit or public debt was the bigger culprit in the global economic crisis. They award points to each. In short, their research seems to show that private credit booms put economies in difficult positions. And public debt makes it difficult for economies to recover. The narrative of the recent the global financial crisis in advanced economies falls into two camps. One camp emphasizes private-sector overconfidence, overleveraging, and overborrowing; the other highlights public-sector profligacy, especially with regard to countries in the periphery of the euro zone. One camp talks of rescue and reform of the financial sector. The other calls for government austerity, noting that public debt has reached levels last seen following the two world wars. Figure 1 Credit and debt since 1870: 17-country average Credit and debt since 1870: 17-country average Source: Jordà, Schularick, and Taylor (2013). Figure 1 displays the average ratio of bank lending and public debt to GDP for 17 industrialized economies (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Although public debt ratios had grown from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, they had declined toward their peacetime average before the 2008 financial crisis. By contrast, private credit maintained a fairly stable relationship with GDP until the 1970s and then surged to unprecedented levels right up to the outbreak of the crisis. Spain provides an example of the woes in the euro zone periphery and the interplay of private credit and public debt. In 2007, Spain had a budget surplus of about 2% of GDP and government debt stood at 40% of GDP (OECD Country Statistical Profile). That was well below the level of debt in Germany, France, and the United States. But by 2012, Spain’s government debt had more than doubled, reaching nearly 90% of GDP, as the public sector assumed large losses from the banking sector and tax revenues collapsed. Thus, what began as a banking crisis driven by the collapse of a real estate bubble quickly turned into a sovereign debt crisis. In June 2012, Spanish 10-year bond rates reached 7% and, even at that rate, Spain had a hard time accessing bond markets. Once sovereign debt comes under attack in financial markets, banks themselves become vulnerable since many of them hold public debt as assets on their balance sheets. The new bout of weakness in the banking system feeds back again into the government’s future liabilities, setting in motion what some have called the “deadly embrace” or “doom loop.” The conundrum facing policymakers is this: Implement too much austerity and you risk choking off the nascent recovery, possibly delaying desired fiscal rebalancing. But, if austerity is delayed, bond markets may impose an even harsher correction by demanding higher interest rates on government debt. Matters are further complicated for countries in a monetary union, such as Spain. Such countries do not directly control monetary policy and therefore cannot offset fiscal policy adjustments through monetary stimulus by lowering domestic interest rates. In addition, central banks in these countries have limited capacity to stave off self-fulfilling panics since their lender-of-last-resort function evaporates. Fluctuations in fiscal balances over the business cycle are natural. As economic activity temporarily stalls, revenues decline and expenditures increase. With the recovery, fiscal balances typically improve. But the debate on what is a country’s appropriate level of public debt in the medium run continues to rage. It is unclear whether high debt is a cause or a consequence of low economic growth. That said, public debt is not a good predictor of financial crises. Read the full letter here .
  • Wealth: Not Just About Money

    You can't judge a book by its cover. And you shouldn't judge someone's wealth by looking at all the flashy things they own. In this Marketplace Whiteboard , Paddy Hirsch reminds us that wealth is not only about assets, but also about debts.
  • Lagarde: Three Reform Steps for Spain (and Europe)

    Christine Lagarde was in Bilbao, Spain this morning to discuss the state of the economy in Europe in general, and Spain in particular. The IMF managing director noted that there are encouraging signs of growth across the EU. But the big challenge remains the high unemployment rates in member nations. Spain, of course, is the poster child for the jobs problem. Lagarde: I am here reminded by President Rajoy who said: “Spain is out of recession but not out of the crisis….The task now is to achieve a vigorous recovery that allows us to create jobs." I fully agree—creating jobs must be the overriding focus for Spain. What does this mean in practical terms? It means there can be no let-up in the reform momentum. The strong reform momentum must be maintained. And we can see three key areas where further progress will be crucial. The first area is labor market reforms—which need to be deepened so that they can work for all. Both firms and their workers need to be assured that they can reach appropriate agreements on working conditions and wages. This is essential for jobs to be protected and created. Workers need to be directly supported as well—through enhanced skills training and job-search assistance for the unemployed. And by further cutting the tax costs of employing people, especially the low-paid, the unemployed would face fewer barriers in finding work. The second area concerns debt—which needs to be lowered. For firms, this means helping insolvent but viable ones restructure their debts, so they can stay in business and continue to invest and hire people. For the government, it means continuing to reduce the fiscal deficit in a gradual, growth-friendly way—especially by relying more on indirect taxes. The third and final area is the business environment—which needs to be strengthened. Making it easier for businesses to start up and grow will lift their capacity to create employment. Making domestic firms more competitive will also boost their employment and productivity. The government’s plans to liberalize professional services and promote free trade among Spain’s regions go very much in this direction. Read the full speech here .
  • NY Fed Household Debt and Credit Report for 4th Quarter 2013

    When the global financial crisis hit, Americans got more concerned about debt. Household debt continued to drop almost every quarter over the next 5 years, with only tiny increases in the first quarter of 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012. That trend seems to have turned. Household debt increased $127 billion in the third quarter of 2013, and then another $241 billion last quarter, according to the New York Fed . That's a 2.1% increase. From the NY Fed quarterly report: Mortgages, the largest component of household debt, increased 1.9% during the fourth quarter of 2013. Mortgage balances shown on consumer credit reports stand at $8.05 trillion, up by $152 billion from their level in the third quarter. Furthermore, calendar year 2013 saw a net increase of $16 billion in mortgage balances, ending the four year streak of year over year declines. Balances on home equity lines of credit (HELOC) dropped by $6 billion (1.1%) and now stand at $529 billion. Non-housing debt balances increased by 3.3%, with gains of $18 billion in auto loan balances, $53 billion in student loan balances, and $11 billion in credit card balances. Delinquency transition rates for current mortgage accounts are near pre-crisis levels, with 1.48% of current mortgage balances transitioning into delinquency. The rate of transition from early (30-60 days) into serious (90 days or more) delinquency dropped, to 20.9%, while the cure rate – the share of balances that transitioned from 30- 60 days delinquent to current –improved slightly, rising to 26.9%. Read the full report here .
  • Bloomberg: 'The European Debt Crisis Visualized'

    The European debt crisis is old news. And while the heat may have come down in the last year, it is not over. The interactive team at Bloomberg News has put together a new way of telling the story of the debt crisis. Some students may find the debt crisis easier to understand through this visualization. And we appreciate that this telling of the story goes back almost a century, so there students get the deeper context of Europe's current challenges.
  • Larry Summers on the Cost of Not Taking Advantage of Low Interest Rates

    Lawrence Summers isn't officially an adviser to the White House at the moment, but that doesn't mean he is without advice for politicians in Washington. In an interview with Here and Now 's Jeremy Hobson , following the latest deal in Congress to raise the debt ceiling, Summers said "we don't have a realistic option, ever, of defaulting on the debt." Summers went on to discuss the importance of smart spending while interest rates are low. Costs for fixing infrastructure and improving education will get higher in the future, and the costs for not fixing infrastructure and improving education will be great, he argues. Here is the full interview:
  • Marketplace Whiteboard: Debt, Borrowing, and Waiting for Your Ship to Come In

    One of the best ways to lose a lot of money is also one of the best ways to lose a lot of money. Going into debt has been a proven path to wealth for centuries. Paddy Hirsch gives us a history and economics lesson tied into one as he explains how borrowing can create wealth in this Marketplace Whiteboard explainer:
  • CBO: The Budget and Economic Outlook for the Next Ten Years

    The Congressional Budget Office has released its economic projections for the next ten years, and while most of the coverage so far has focused on the effects of the Affordable Care Act, we're also interested in the expectations for economic growth. The CBO is expecting slow and steady growth in GDP. And slow and steady increase in government debt--but only after continuing to decline in 2014 and 2015. The overall GDP picture is not so bad: The debt picture is a little less pretty: From the report: The large budget deficits recorded in recent years have substantially increased federal debt, and the amount of debt relative to the size of the economy is now very high by historical standards. CBO estimates that federal debt held by the public will equal 74 percent of GDP at the end of this year and 79 percent in 2024 (the end of the current 10-year projection period). Such large and growing federal debt could have serious negative consequences, including restraining economic growth
in the long term, giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and eventually increas- ing the risk of a fiscal crisis (in which investors would demand high interest rates to buy the government’s debt). After a frustratingly slow recovery from the severe reces- sion of 2007 to 2009, the economy will grow at a solid pace in 2014 and for the next few years, CBO projects. Real GDP (output adjusted to remove the effects of infla- tion) is expected to increase by roughly 3 percent between the fourth quarter of 2013 and the fourth quarter of 2014—the largest rise in nearly a decade. Similar annual growth rates are projected through 2017. Nevertheless, CBO estimates that the economy will continue to have considerable unused labor and capital resources (or “slack”) for the next few years. Although the unemploy- ment rate is expected to decline, CBO projects that it will remain above 6.0 percent until late 2016. Moreover, the rate of participation in the labor force—which has been pushed down by the unusually large number of people who have decided not to look for work because of a lack of job opportunities—is projected to move only slowly back toward what it would be without the cyclical weakness in the economy. Beyond 2017, CBO expects that economic growth will diminish to a pace that is well below the average seen over the past several decades. That projected slowdown mainly reflects long-term trends—particularly, slower growth in the labor force because of the aging of the population. Inflation, as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE), will remain at or below 2.0 percent throughout the next decade, CBO anticipates. Interest rates on Treasury securities, which have been exceptionally low since the recession, are projected to increase in the next few years as the economy strengthens and to end up at levels that are close to their historical averages (adjusted for inflation). You can download the full report (.pdf) here .
  • Feldstein on Steadily Improving Standard of Living

    Looking for some cheery economic analysis? Then Martin Feldstein is your man. Stop fretting over the slow rate of growth. Looking beyond 2014, Feldstein makes the case that slow, steady growth will bring significant improvement in the standard of living. From Project Syndicate : The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that real per capita GDP growth will slow from an annual rate of 2.1% in the 40 years before the start of the recent recession to just 1.6% between 2023 and 2088. The primary reason for the projected slowdown is the decrease in employment relative to the population, which reflects the aging of American society, a lower birth rate, and a decelerating rise in women’s participation in the labor force. While the number of persons working increased by 1.6% per year, on average, from 1970 to 2010, the CBO forecasts that the rate of annual employment growth will fall to just 0.4% in the coming decades. A drop in annual growth of real per capita GDP from 2.1% to 1.6% looks like a substantial decline. But even if these figures are taken at face value as an indication of future living standards, they do not support the common worry that the children of today’s generation will not be as well off as their parents. An annual per capita growth rate of 1.6% means that a child born today will have a real income that, on average, is 60% higher at age 30 than his or her parents had at the same age. Of course, not everyone will experience the average rate of growth. Some will outperform the average 60% rise over the next three decades, and some will not reach that level. But a 30-year-old in 2044 who experiences only half the average growth rate will still have a real income that is nearly 30% higher than the average in 2014. But things are even better than those numbers imply. Although government statisticians do their best to gauge the rise in real GDP through time, there are two problems that are very difficult to overcome in measuring real incomes: increases in the quality of goods and services, and the introduction of new ones. I believe that both of these problems cause the official measure of real GDP growth to understate the true growth of the standard of living that real GDP is supposed to indicate. Read The Future of American Growth here .
  • Eichengreen: Lessons Learned From the Decade of Concern Over Global Imbalance

    At Project Syndicate , Barry Eichengreen declares the "era of imbalances is over." Ten years ago, Eichengreen notes, leading economies had rising current-account deficits--the U.S.'s rose to 5.8% of GDP--or current-account surpluses--China's hit 10% of GDP. But now, those surpluses and deficits are mostly under control. Eichengreen tries to sort out some lessons from the decade. Back in 2004, there were two schools of thought on global imbalances. The Dr. Pangloss school dismissed them as benign – a mere reflection of emerging economies’ demand for dollar reserves, which only the US could provide, and American consumers’ insatiable appetite for cheap merchandise imports. Trading safe assets for cheap merchandise was the best of all worlds. It was a happy equilibrium that could last indefinitely. By contrast, adherents of the Dr. Doom school warned that global imbalances were an accident waiting to happen. At some point, emerging-market demand for US assets would be sated. Worse, emerging markets would conclude that US assets were no longer safe. Financing for America’s current-account deficit would dry up. The dollar would crash. Financial institutions would be caught wrong-footed, and a crisis would result. We now know that both views were wrong. Global imbalances did not continue indefinitely. As China satisfied its demand for safe assets, it turned to riskier foreign investments. It began rebalancing its economy from saving to consumption and from exports to domestic demand. The US, meanwhile, acknowledged the dangers of excessive debt and leverage. It began taking steps to reduce its indebtedness and increase its savings. To accommodate this change in spending patterns, the dollar weakened, enabling the US to export more. The renminbi, meanwhile, strengthened, reflecting Chinese residents’ increased desire to consume. There was a crisis, to be sure, but it was not a crisis of global imbalances. Although the US had plenty of financial problems, financing its external deficit was not one of them. On the contrary, the dollar was one of the few clear beneficiaries of the crisis, as foreign investors, desperate for liquidity, piled into US Treasury bonds. Read A Requiem for Global Imbalances here .
  • Barry Ritholtz Shares 10 Financial Resolutions He Thinks We Can Keep

    The time has come to start looking at other people's New Year resolutions. We can't advocate making resolutions (unless you are the sort to feel compelled to cross items off a list. Otherwise, we don't like watching people set themselves up for failure). But we learn a lot from smart people writing out what all of us should do--as long as the goals are realistic. When it comes to finance, Barry Ritholtz is one of those people who tends to share some thoughtful, no-nonsense guidance. In his Washington Post column this week, he puts forward 10 resolutions. Here are three: 3. Stop trading. The evidence is overwhelming: You are not a good trader. You individually, as well as the rest of your emotional, irrational species. You lack the temperament, the discipline, the ability to set aside ego and make cold, calculating decisions. No wonder algorithms are replacing people on so many trading desks. For those of you who just cannot quit, try this: Put 5 percent of your investable assets in a trading account. Track how well your trading does vs. what I described above. If after five years you have outperformed your real investments net of fees, taxes and all other expenses, you can pull an additional 15 to 20 percent into this account. Experience teaches that most of you will close this account long before five years elapse. 4. Max out tax-deferred accounts. The math on this is incontrovertible: Income you invest before taxes starts out with about a 40 percent advantage vs. post-tax cash. It’s that simple. If your job offers a 401(k) (or a 403(b) for nonprofits), max it out. And if your firm does not, ask why? Get it to take advantage of this huge tax savings. You should also max out your IRA — $5,500 per year for those under 50, and $6,500 for those over 50. 5. Refinance your debt. The Fed has announced the beginning of the end of quantitative easement, and the end of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) is coming. In plain English, this means rates should “normalize” sooner rather than later. That means higher — and, in some cases, appreciably higher — credit costs. Start with your home. Lock in a low rate, refinancing in a fixed (not variable) mortgage. If you can afford to make the higher payments, go for the 15-year note vs. the standard 30-year note, and your rates will be even lower. You should also carry as little credit card debt as possible; you might negotiate a lower rate with your bank just by asking. Usually the threat of transferring the balance to a zero-rate “teaser” card gets the job done. Read all the resolutions here .
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