Why is There Such a Major Split on What the Fed Should Do Next?

John Mauldin |

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”

– Sun Tzu

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about 47,000 China reports clogging my e-mail. The number now feels like it is well into six figures (perhaps a slight exaggeration). Maybe my memory is going, but there wasn’t nearly as much China talk on the way up. Funny how that works.

Is China collapsing? I think parts of China are under severe pressure if not outright recession, and clearly the stock market is a disaster. Anyone who bought Shanghai or Shenzhen stocks on margin this year is probably on the brink.

That said, China itself is not collapsing. There are parts of China that are doing just fine, thank you very much. It does have serious problems, though. The Pollyannas and the Cassandras are both wrong. The change in tone in the Financial Times is quite amusing. Their recent hyperbolic, bearish section called “China Tremors” is a case in point. Of the last 30 articles on China on their website, I found less than a handful that were positive on China. My take? China will muddle through, at least for the near term.

China is in transition, a transition that was clearly telegraphed if you have been paying attention. Our recent book on China (A Great Leap Forward?) clearly laid out this new path. Today we are going to talk about this precarious, difficult transition, which may impose profound impacts on much of the rest of the world. This transition is going to change the way global trade has worked in the past. There will be winners and losers.

But first, a brief comment on today’s employment report and how it impacts the need for a rate hike by the Federal Reserve in September. I offer a little different perspective on the coming decision.

To Hike or Not To Hike – That Is the Question

Today’s unemployment report was lackluster, as has been the case for the initial reporting for the last two Augusts. Both were revised significantly upward – August 2012 was eventually revised up 96,000 jobs, while August 2013 saw a final revision upward of 69,000 jobs, and August 2014 saw a final count of +213,000 jobs. Part of the reason for the major revisions is that only some 70% of the potential survey participants actually responded (hat tip Joan McCullough). Evidently the United States is becoming like Europe, and we are all going on vacation in August. Or at least the department personnel responsible for handling employment figures are. Expect to see significant upward revisions in the coming months, just as July saw another 30,000 added and June saw a plus 14,000.

This report was not so ugly that it would take the breath away from hawks wanting to raise rates or force doves into agreeing to a rate increase. Nothing changed, really. That is illustrated by the two articles below that were side-by-side on the New York Times website within an hour of the release of the report (hat tip Brent Donnelly). Everybody got to see what they wanted to see.

I can’t remember a time when there was such serious disagreement over what the Federal Reserve should do regarding a rate hike. I have been in several groups of analysts and economists in the last few months, and I must confess to being surprised at the split in opinions.

Upon reflection, I think I can actually understand both positions. First, the Fed keeps reiterating that they are “data-dependent” – thus the focus on every little bit of data, no matter how trivial. Let me see if I can explain why both sides can feel they are right and then why, to my way of thinking, they are missing the point.

On the side of those who feel that a rate hike should be postponed at the September meeting, it must be remembered that most rate hikes are in anticipation of an economy beginning to pick up speed. The Fed has said they want to see low unemployment, and under the leadership of Bernanke and now Yellen, they have a 2% inflation target. Remember, their congressional mandate is to promote stable prices and full employment.

While unemployment did drop to 5.1%, that is a “soft” unemployment figure. The participation rate is down. The number of part-time workers wanting full-time jobs is still high. And the new employment trend is not encouraging.

August's gains were well below trend. The average of the previous five months is 211,000; for the previous six before that it was 282,000. The yearly employment gain, 2.1%, is off 0.2 point from the late 2014/early 2015 rate. The private sector gain is 60,000 below the average of the previous six months. (The Liscio Report)

We are not close to 2% inflation; and, frankly, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get there for a while. The economy is, at best, stuck in a low, Muddle Through gear (as I predicted years ago); and getting back to a stable 3% growth rate, let alone the occasional 4–5% that we used to see, seems out of reach. The dollar is strong and getting stronger and is not only holding down inflation but also, anecdotal evidence suggests, slowing down exports in various sectors of the economy. There were those who argued that a bubble was developing in the stock market, but it appears the stock market is taking care of itself to make sure it doesn’t become overheated. There is no need to pile on to see if we can drive asset prices even lower. Further, we are just in the beginning of a housing recovery. Why raise mortgage rates, etc., at the beginning?

In such an environment, why would you raise rates in order to keep the economy from overheating? The last thing we seem to be doing is overheating, let alone even getting to a slow boil. Instead, we may already be cooling down. If the economy does start to pick up and inflation becomes an issue, we could raise rates then as fast as we would need to. Or so Kocherlakota and his friends on the FOMC say. And thus we should postpone a rate increase until we see a reason for it. Kind of like, don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.

Those who think we should raise rates likewise have an array of data to support their case. GDP grew 3.7% in the second quarter. If you take out the weather-related first-quarter 2015 GDP figure, GDP growth is running well over 3%. Given the global headwinds currently buffeting economies, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. This economy has weathered tax increases and the abrupt changes of Obamacare, as well as a significant drop in capital spending related to oil production and has “kept on ticking.” If there is a recession in our near future, as David Rosenberg points out, it would be the first recession ever that did not see consumer spending or employment go down for the count.

We’ve always been able to find negatives in the unemployment rate. Even if unemployment were somehow to ratchet down to less than 200,000 per month, it will be for only two quarters at the most; and it may be that before the end of the year we will be under 5% unemployment.

We just set a record for all measures of corporate profits in absolute terms. We finally set a new record for real disposable personal income in July, again in absolute terms. As Jim Smith says,

What all this means is that when the FOMC meets on September 16 and 17, they will be looking at a US economy in which more people are employed than ever before, earning more money than ever before, producing more goods and services than ever before, and with personal consumption expenditures and corporate profits at the highest levels ever seen. If that is not a prescription for finally raising the Fed Funds rate, then I can't imagine what it would take to get them to move. (source)

Despite the significant slowdown in the oil patch, the level of investment in the second quarter was almost 4% higher than last year. Businesses are optimistic. Even given the turmoil in Canada, China, the Eurozone, and the rest of the BRICS, and even though global trade is beginning to fall off a little bit, the US economy seems to be doing quite well in spite of it all.

What else do you need in order to begin to normalize rates? Inflation is under control and according to most Fed economists seems to be ticking higher. Unemployment is moving lower. The economy is doing quite well. If not now, when? How much better do you want things to get before rates are taken back to something close to normal?

I must confess that I personally lean toward the latter argument, but I have a few additional reasons for thinking the Federal Reserve should act in September. As I have presented in previous letters, there are real reasons to think that low interest rates are not only creating malinvestment but also encouraging companies to use financial engineering and to buy their competition rather than purchasing the tools of production and actually competing head on. These behaviors distort an economy over the long term. They frustrate Schumpeter’s forces of creative destruction.

Further, what policy tools does the Federal Reserve still have available if we enter a recession? I admit that doesn’t seem to be a likely possibility today, but there are many potentials for exogenous shocks to the US economy that could cause a recession. Further, in the history of the United States we have never had a period longer than nine years without a recession. This recovery, relatively weak though it is, is getting long in the tooth. Do we want the Fed to confront the next recession with another round of massive quantitative easing as the only policy tool left to deploy? When their own research shows that QE wasn’t very useful and when we can clearly see the distortions caused by QE in emerging markets around the world?

The Federal Reserve is functionally incapable of not feeling the need to “do something” in the midst of a recession. If the only tool they have is further massive quantitative easing, they will use it. Damn the distortions, full speed ahead!

I would not argue for a rapid rate hike. In fact, I would prefer 1/8 of a point at every meeting, rather than the typical quarter point. But there is no reason not to raise a quarter of a point at this meeting, skip a meeting to make sure everybody can take a deep breath, and then raise once more before the end of the year.

I mean, really? Does the Fed think this economy is so fragile that it can’t take a lousy quarter-of-a-point increase in interest rates? The Federal Reserve needs to begin to restock its policy tool chest now. While I personally think we are a long way from ever seeing 5% Fed funds rates again, a 2% rate can probably easily be absorbed if it comes slowly. And that rate would give the Fed some policy tools when, not if, we enter the next recession.

Now, let’s turn back to China.

Repeat After Me: Chinese Stocks Are Not the Chinese Economy

It’s easy to assume that a country’s stock market reflects the condition of its economy, but that is not always the case. Further, what the stock market really does reflect is the consensus estimate of an economy’s future condition. More specifically, stock prices reveal future expectations for corporate profits.

This generally applies to both the United States and China. One key difference, though, is that most American stocks represent companies that seek to make profits. In China, that isn’t necessarily the case.

The Chinese stock market includes many state-owned enterprises (SOEs), whose executives answer to bureaucrats in Beijing. The government views them as public policy tools. Everyone is happy if the SOEs make a profit, but profit is not the first priority.

If US stock prices generally tell us more about the future than the present, except in times of serious over- or undervaluation, then Chinese stock prices tell us even less about either.

Just as last year’s incredible run-up in Chinese stocks did not signal an economic boom, the ongoing decline does not signal an economic bust. The correlations aren’t just weak, they are nonexistent.

China’s official economic data is also questionable and would be so even if GDP were a precise measurement tool. As we discussed last week, it usually isn’t.

It is no stretch to say we are flying blind about China.

Fortunately, we have diligent researchers like Leland Miller of China Beige Book, whose research firm does the hard work of gathering reliable data each quarter from thousands of companies in China and assembling it in comprehensible form. His data shows that China’s economy has actually been in good shape since China stopped acting Chinese last year. But even then, you have to separate the Chinese economy into several categories.

China Good, China Bad, & China Ugly

Among the many letters and reports on China that I received over the last month, I’d like to single out an excellent research note that the team at Gavekal Dragonomics published last week, called “What to Worry About and What Not to in China.” I appreciated this piece, because it really helped me structure my worrying. I dislike spending energy worrying about the wrong things. Further, worrying about the wrong things can be dangerous. It’s when you are paying attention to the wrong things that what you should have been paying attention to jumps up and bites you on the derrière.

In the spirit of the Gavekal note, here is the good side of China. We’ll get to the bad and the ugly below.

Chinese real estate prices will stabilize. We hear a lot about China’s massive infrastructure boom and the resulting “ghost cities.” These aren’t just rumors. The government mandated the construction of entire cities to house the formerly agrarian population as it shifts to industrial jobs. Provincial governments earned as much as 80% of their revenues from land sales. Essentially, this is a process where they take possession of rural land that has very little value in price terms, declare it to be available for development, and can make profits several orders of magnitude greater than their costs. Nice work if you can get it.

The ghost cities will not stay empty forever. They will fill with people over the next few years (in some cases more than a few). The recent housing bubble is more a function of young people wanting to cram into certain popular areas. The broader internal migration will support housing prices even as the bubble areas pop.

It might be helpful to think of the Chinese ghost cities as analogous to the overbuilt condos in Florida. Prices in Florida did in fact collapse, and places were selling for a fraction of their construction cost. I wrote at the time that I thought they would be very good investments, because the number of people wanting to retire to Florida is actually a fairly steadily growing figure. Low taxes, good weather, positive infrastructure, excellent medical care – what’s not to like, other than it’s not Texas? Just saying…

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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