Economic Prediction? Might as Well Forecast the Weather

by Anirban Basu 23. April 2014

Anirban Basu

Recent Weak Data Largely Attributable to Atmospheric Conditions

The global economy expanded by a below-average 3 percent last year. The U.S. economy expanded by less than 2 percent, though the latter half of the year was much better than the first. The U.S. economy expanded at a 4.1 percent annualized pace during the third quarter (more than a third of that was due to inventory accumulation) and then followed up that performance with 2.6 percent growth during the fourth. That means that during the final six months of 2013, the U.S. economy expanded at a better than 3 percent rate. Among the leading contributors to growth during the fourth quarter were personal consumption and net exports.

Most forecasters believe that 2014 will be better for both the global and national economies. After expanding 3 percent last year, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that the global economy will expand 3.6 percent this year (the previous forecast had been 3.7 percent, but was downgraded largely due to the expected impact of sanctions on the Russian economy -- Russia is now expected to expand 1.3 percent in 2014, down from the prior forecast of 1.9 percent). Growth is expected to accelerate in both Europe and the U.S. The forecast for America is 2.8 percent, though we believe that could very well turn out to be a tad optimistic.

Part of this sanguinity can be attributed to momentum. Consumers in much of the world appear poised to accelerate spending in 2014, in large measure because of massive gains in certain equity markets, including in (until recently) the U.S. and Japan. The S&P 500 market gauge gained 29.6 percent last year, the largest annual gain since 1997. The Dow Jones was up 26.5 percent and the NASDAQ was up by more than 38 percent.

Consumers and key segments of the broader economy continue to benefit from favorable interest rates and easing credit conditions. Commercial real estate has been one of the beneficiaries of easing credit standards. The Federal Reserve’s January 2014 Senior Loan Office Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices indicates that on net U.S. institutions have eased standards for most forms of commercial real estate loans. These same bankers report experiencing stronger demand for such loans. The Comptroller of the Currency’s 2013 Survey of Credit Underwriting Practices reports that bank examiners determined that 24 percent of banks offering non-construction commercial real estate loans had eased their lending standards compared to a year prior while only 8 percent had tightened standards.

One of the most interesting aspects of economic life has been the refusal of interest rates to head higher. Conventional wisdom has expected meaningful increases in interest rates for months, but at the time of this writing, the 10-year Treasury note offered a yield of just 2.66 percent. The five-year note yields about 1.65 percent. The implication is that 1) investors remain cautious and there continues to be a flight to quality; 2) the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep borrowing costs low continue to work; 3) investors remain unconcerned by the nation’s accumulated $17.5 trillion debt; and 4) global investors continue to disproportionately ship investment dollars to America.

Stable inflation and interest rates is also likely attributable to still weak labor markets. Despite ongoing job growth, unemployment remains stubbornly close to 7 percent (6.7%; March). But labor market dynamics have changed for the better. In previous periods, unemployment had largely declined because people were leaving the labor force. Since January, nearly 1.3 million people have returned to the nation’s labor market. The labor force participation rate, which achieved a historic low in December of 2013, has risen to 63.2 percent (March).

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of U.S. economic performance is the recent softening in retail sales momentum. While some of this may be due to larger outlays on housing, the softening of year-over-year retail sales increases indicates that consumers are still not positioned to drive the economy into 3 percent growth territory. While some analysts have attributed the slowdown in year-over-year performance to the weather, it is clear that softening began before the weather turned wintry. Moreover, momentum in certain categories such as Internet sales, which should not be as susceptible to weather, has also waned.

Economic Winter in Maryland

Maryland's job growth remains incredibly inconsistent on a month-by-month basis. In a prior report, we indicated that Maryland’s job growth performance was respectable. That is no longer the case. The state’s economy added just short of 7,600 jobs between February 2013 and February 2014. That translates into a growth rate of 0.3 percent, one of the slowest in the nation. The state lost 600 jobs in February after losing 6,100 jobs in January. Undoubtedly, weather played a part, but even if January and February had been flat, Maryland’s level of performance would have been far below the nation’s.

Sequestration and a housing market that continues to be frustrated by disproportionate numbers of foreclosures are at least partially responsible. One in every 557 housing units in Maryland reported a foreclosure filing in February, up roughly 30 percent from a year ago, second only to Florida and almost double the national average according to RealtyTrac data. Among metropolitan areas, Baltimore-Towson had the third highest foreclosure rate of all metropolitan areas besides Tampa and Miami.

Three months ago, Maryland ranked 28th in terms of year-over-year job growth. That ranking has fallen by 16 spots to 44th. Moreover, the quality of jobs being added is not high. The fastest year-over-year job growth was recorded in the lowest wage segment, leisure and hospitality (8,600 net new jobs; 3.4%). By contrast, manufacturing and information have been shedding jobs.

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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