Unrealized Potential: A Glance at Our Economy

by Anirban Basu 21. October 2013

Anirban Basu

Despite a growth rate that has averaged more than 3 percent over the past 25 years and an unmatched capacity to create and support a host of powerful companies ranging from Google and Coca-Cola to Boeing and Caterpillar, the U.S. economy has been stuck at 2 percent growth for several years. Imagine a sports car with incredible get up and go that has had to continuously negotiate a series of speed bumps. Economically, these take the form of higher tax rates, sequestration, rising interest rates, a recently resolved federal shut down, and the uncertainties associated with healthcare reform. The upshot – 2013 will go down as yet another disappointing year for the U.S. economy.

While the government reached a deal to reopen the government, the 16-day shutdown and a standoff regarding the federal debt limit, cost the nation’s economy $24 billion according to an S&P estimate. Furthermore, according to the Conference Board, the economy is set to expand at just 1.7 percent on an annualized basis during the fourth quarter. In other words, the economy may not be entering 2014 with much momentum.

U.S. equity markets, however, have generally continued to surge higher. As of October 10, 2013, the Dow was up nearly five percent since the onset of the third quarter and up nearly 16 percent year-to-date. The Nasdaq Composite was up nearly 21 percent year-to-date as of October 10th, which happened to be 10 days into the federal government shutdown.

The rebound in equity markets is attributable to numerous factors. One is a still expanding, though somewhat disappointing U.S. economy. Corporate profitability and ongoing injections of liquidity into the economy by the U.S. Federal Reserve have also contributed to appreciating share prices.

Of course, Federal Reserve policy influences more than stock prices. Consumers have leveraged low interest rates, including through the purchase of new cars and light trucks. Sales of new vehicles in the U.S. are on pace to exceed 15 million in 2013.

The Federal Reserve will continue to focus on accelerating economic growth as long as inflation remains tame. For now, inflation is not a major issues. Consumer prices rose just 0.1 percent in August after climbing a similarly benign 0.2 percent in July. Despite large jumps in February and June (0.7 and 0.5 percent, respectively), trend inflation remains well within the Federal Reserve’s comfort zone.

Labor market performance remains mixed. While it is true that unemployment fell to 7.3 percent in August, the lowest rate recorded since December 2008, the decline was primarily attributable to the 312,000 people who left the labor force. Only 63.2 percent of Americans presently participate in the labor force, the lowest proportion since August 1978.

Maryland's economy added 43,300 jobs or 1.7 percent to aggregate nonfarm payrolls. Because Maryland is a wealthy state, it is likely that consumers here benefit more on average from the stock market’s rally. This may help explain some of the state’s demonstrated capacity to withstand federally-induced headwinds. According to the most recently available data, statewide nonfarm employment stands at 2,616,200 jobs, a record high.

Looking Ahead

As of this writing, America’s government has been reopened for less than 24 hours. Although the nation was not foolish enough to tempt fate through default, the government could again close on January 15th, less than three months from now. This means that Washington, D.C. will continue to be a source of fixation and uncertainty among the nation’s business decision-makers. That uncertainly will likely prevent the economy from accelerating to 3 percent growth next year. Another 2 percent year is quite possible.

Anirban Basu, Economist, Sage Policy Group, Inc. & First Mariner Bank Board Member

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, Maryland. Basu is one of the Mid-Atlantic region's most recognizable economists, in part because of his consulting work on behalf of numerous clients, including prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms. On behalf of government agencies and non-profit organizations, Basu has written several high-profile economic development strategies, including co-authoring Baltimore City's economic growth strategy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of 1st Mariner Bank.

Record Low Mortgage Rates a Thing of the Past

by Anirban Basu 19. August 2013

Anirban BAsu

It was only a Matter of Time

We knew they wouldn’t last forever. An extraordinary confluence of circumstances, including a deep recession, deflationary forces and hyper-aggressive monetary policy, produced the lowest mortgage rates in history. As of July of last year, interest rates on benchmark 30-year fixed-rate loans were hovering around 3.5 percent, sometimes lower. They bottomed out at the end of November, when rates hit an unheard of 3.31 percent according to the Freddie Mac Primary Mortgage Market Survey. Until the last few weeks, these rates had managed to remain below 4 percent despite ongoing economic recovery.

But the mere possibility of slower bond purchases by the Federal Reserve produced a surge in mortgage rates. Recently, these rates have been in excess of 4.5 percent, a level that hasn’t been observed in over two years. As pointed out by MoneyWatch and other publications, at the end of June, rates leapt nearly 0.5 percent, producing the largest week-over-week increases in more than a quarter century. Many economists viewed the bond market’s reaction to possible Federal Reserve policy shifts as overdone, but rates have not declined significantly since their initial surge.

For those who prefer to view the glass as half-full, the rise in mortgage rates is to a large extent the product of better economic news. The nation is now in its fifth year of economic recovery. It has added more than 2.2 million jobs over the past year, including nearly 200,000 in construction.

Improvement in the housing market has taken center stage. Since the final quarter of 2011, advances in homebuilding have been responsible for roughly a fifth of total economic expansion. As a result of improvements in homebuilding and remodeling, housing’s overall share of the economy is gradually climbing back toward historic norms.

Correspondingly, the housing sector, which led the economy into recession in late-2007 and into near financial collapse in September 2008, no longer needs as much monetary policy support as it once did. Home prices are now rising, creating a level of urgency among prospective buyers that did not exist during earlier stages of the economic recovery.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, a leading measure of U.S. home prices, average prices rose 11.6 percent and 12.1 percent for the 10- and 20-City Composite indices for the 12 months ending in April 2013. Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Minneapolis posted their largest annual gains since the inception of these indices. Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Francisco generated year-over-year gains exceeding 20 percent.

In Maryland, median sales prices are up 5.9 percent over the past year (June 2012 versus June 2013) and average sales prices are up 4.3 percent. Unit sales are up 13.1 percent.

Looking Ahead

It is quite possible of course that the recent rise in mortgage rates will slow progress in the housing market going forward. Already, there has been major impact in the market for mortgage refinancing, with refinancing demand recently slipping to a 2-year low.

To date, loan applications for home purchases have not been as significantly impacted. With mortgage rates having risen, some prospective purchasers have undoubtedly reconsidered their selection of mortgage product, with more opting for adjustable rate mortgages than would have had rates remained unchanged. That flexibility allows would-be buyers to continue to benefit from ultra-low rates even in a rising rate environment. Moreover, the latest data continue to indicate rising home prices, which means that the motivation to purchase and enjoy future appreciation still remains.

Anirban Basu, Economist, Sage Policy Group, Inc. & First Mariner Bank Board Member

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, Maryland. Basu is one of the Mid-Atlantic region's most recognizable economists, in part because of his consulting work on behalf of numerous clients, including prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms. On behalf of government agencies and non-profit organizations, Basu has written several high-profile economic development strategies, including co-authoring Baltimore City's economic growth strategy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of 1st Mariner Bank.

Economy, Markets Outperform Expectations

by Anirban Basu 12. April 2013

Anirban BasuA Record-Setting First Quarter

Simply put, the first quarter of 2013 was a fabulous one for U.S. equity investors. The S&P 500 Index, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIJA), and the Nasdaq all ended the first quarter of 2013 on a resounding note. The Dow Jones was up 11 percent during the first quarter to 14,578.58– its best first-quarter performance in 15 years. The S&P 500 rose 10 percent to 1,569.19 while the Nasdaq rose 8.2 percent to 3,267.52. Both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones surpassed previous record closing highs in March.

The national economy has also outperformed expectations thus far in 2013. Real gross domestic product tracked at roughly 2 percent on an annualized basis during the first quarter, far better than the 0.4 percent increase registered during the fourth quarter of 2012. Despite a disappointing employment report for March, which indicated that the U.S. added just 88,000 jobs, the jobless rate fell to 7.6 percent, a post-recession low. During the first three months of the year, monthly job growth averaged 168,000 jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (+148,000 in January; +268,000 in February).

Improvement in the broader economy continues to support recovery in the nation’s housing market. According to the National Association of Realtors, total existing-home sales in February rose 0.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million units. That was up from 4.94 million in January and represented one of many pieces of information indicating that the housing market remains on an upward trajectory. On a year-over-year basis, existing home sales are up more than 10 percent – impressive given overall economic growth nationwide in the range of 2 percent. Home prices are also on the rise. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $173,600 in February, up 11.6 percent from February 2012. That represents the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases and the strongest gain since November 2005.

Perhaps most remarkably, higher stock prices working in conjunction with recent increases in home prices have allowed Americans to collectively recoup the roughly $16 trillion in wealth that was lost during the Great Recession and its aftermath. According to the Federal Reserve, net worth for U.S. households reached $66.1 trillion during the fourth quarter of last year, representing the highest level in five years and more than 98 percent of the pre-recession peak of $67.3 trillion achieved in Q3:2007. First quarter Federal Reserve data are likely to indicate that collective household wealth is now at all-time high, though it remains true that much of the gain has been concentrated among a relatively small proportion of households (i.e., those that own significant amounts of financial assets).

Corporate earnings continue to expand. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that corporate profits rose to $2.013 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2012. That represents an increase of 2.3 percent from the previous quarter and 3.1 percent compared to one year ago. According to the New York Times, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are now at their highest level since 1950.

US Corporate Profits

 

Looking Ahead

It has been a long time since circumstances appeared so promising. But we are not out of the proverbial woods. The U.S. economy could slow significantly during the next few months as federal spending cuts begin to take hold. The Congressional Budget Office projects that $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts could lead to approximately 750,000 job losses in 2013 alone. The March employment data provided us with a taste of things likely to come.

The second quarter should be very interesting. Both certain macroeconomic and corporate factors suggest that the financial market rally could persist, but there is a sea of potential hazards, including N. Korea, the eurozone, another debt ceiling debacle in Washington, Iran, Syria, Egypt, a sharp rise in oil prices and unanticipated inflation. While investors will likely want continued exposure to equities, there are many reasons to remain somewhat guarded. As always, financial diversification appears to be the most reasonable investment strategy to pursue.

 

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, Maryland. Basu is one of the Mid-Atlantic region's most recognizable economists, in part because of his consulting work on behalf of numerous clients, including prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms. On behalf of government agencies and non-profit organizations, Basu has written several high-profile economic development strategies, including co-authoring Baltimore City's economic growth strategy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of 1st Mariner Bank.



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