Analysis Roundup for September 7, 2012

Here’s this week’s collection of topics discussed in economic reports of note from financial institutions and government agencies.

NC State
Walden’s Leading Economic Indicator Index remains flat for August

Dr. Walden’s August Update of Leading Economic Indicators for North Carolina fell a slight 0.1% compared to July. This also happened to be the year-to-year rate of decline.

Initial jobless claims and manufacturing job hours and earnings for North Carolina workers all declined, offsetting gains seen in construction permits. The index also countered national leading indicators, which increased 0.7% for the month.

The state economy is essentially “treading water”, with no clear direction up or down.  The manufacturing sector has certainly slowed, but residential housing is showing some promising signs. Investors may be waiting for clearer signs from the upcoming election results.

Bureau of Labor Statistics
US Unemployment Rate drops to 8.1% because of some job growth, more labor pool decline

The seasonally-adjusted national unemployment rate for August was 8.1%, according to this morning’s report from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. They report a 96,000 increase in total nonfarm employment for the month, moving the monthly average for 2012 to 139,000 (down from 153,000/month in 2011).

Including agricultural employment, total employment declined by 119,000 jobs in August to 142.1 million.

The total labor force contracted by 368,000 (seasonally-adjusted) reducing the participate rate to 63.5%. This is the lowest percentage since September 1981.

Private-sector employment grew overall nationally by 103,000 jobs, all of it due to service sector growth (+119,000). Goods-producing industries lost 16,000, with manufacturing (major component to North Carolina workforce activity) declining by 15,000.

Wells Fargo Economics Group’s analysis this morning of the report reaffirms their belief that overall national economic growth will remain below 2% for the rest of 2012.

An RBC economist also offered this assessment of how today’s employment report might influence action in the coming week from the Federal Reserve.

To help generate even greater job gains, the Fed is expected to keep policy highly accommodative. Fed Chairman Bernanke in hisJackson Hole speech last week signalled a preparedness to introduce additional ease if conditions warranted. Thus, next week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) could see the central bank extending the forward guidance (as to the maintenance of the current range for fed funds) to “sometime in 2015” from the reference to “late 2014” as indicated following the last FOMC in August. The disappointing August job gain will likely prompt discussion at the FOMC about the need for another round of asset purchases.

Richmond District – Federal Reserve
What do you know, and not know, about migration?

The Richmond Fed’s Region Focus is a quarterly publication highlighting their research on various economic and statistical topics. Their latest issue (published this week) includes an interesting article on residential migration, an activity that often dramatically-impacts local government operations and finances.

While the article is written from the premise of trying to figure out if common arguments for recent decline in migration (underwater mortgages, telecommuting, etc.) are relevant with respect to actual data, the work really is a more effective means of understanding some common characteristics associated with migration and the demographic variables that influence its growth or decline, especially at the local level.

The latest Region Focus also includes two more great articles of interest to local governments. Their cover story focuses on the factors contributing to the declining size of our national labor force. They also include a short feature on the concept of “Charter Cities” and the recent establishment of them in Honduras.

Click here for all of the content from the latest Region Focus.

 

Wells Fargo Economics Group
Chartbook: How does commercial real estate factor into all of this?

The commercial real estate market did not see as much valuation volatility as the housing market did during and after the economic crisis in 2008 caused in part by the proliferation of risky mortgage-backed securities. However, the commercial property market could still pose a threat, and would have possibly over the last couple years if not for the Federal Reserve’s two prior rounds of quantitative easing. The latest commercial property chart book from Wells Fargo offers some background on the subject, which may be of interest to cities with high levels of commercial property.

The huge mountain of commercial real estate loans maturing around the middle of the decade has been one of the motivating forces behind the Fed’s monetary policy strategy, which has driven long-term interest rates down to historic lows and removed
much of the near-term interest rate risk. Lower interest rates have also made it possible to refinance and restructure a larger proportion of maturing and potentially problematic loans maturing later in the decade. Moreover, the drop in Treasury yields has also pushed liquidity into other areas, including stocks and real estate. Furthermore, higher stock market valuations have allowed insurance companies and pension funds to allocate a larger portion of their investment portfolio to real estate. A healthier equity market has also made it easier for REITS to raise funds.

However, investors should remember that all magic comes with a price. Ben Bernanke outlined what he believed the costs of the Fed’s asset purchase program have been and by his account they have been manageable. The yield curve has narrowed and inflation premiums, as measured by TIPS, have remained relatively low. This analysis misses one key point, which is the large increase in the demand for liquidity arising from the uncertainty surrounding the Fed’s unprecedented policy moves. Investors’ increased preference for liquidity has manifested in a number of ways, including significantly higher prices for assets with more certain cash flows. No cash flow is more certain than Treasuries, which means the Fed’s measure of potential costs may be flawed.

The drive for liquidity is also affecting commercial real estate. Demand has soared for well-located properties with strong tenants in deep, liquid markets like New York and San Francisco. While that sounds perfectly logical, it means that the most significant gains in commercial real estate values have been limited to a relative handful of projects in a small number of markets.

In other words, while the commercial real estate sector may seem somewhat healthy, it could be thrown into turmoil very easily. Future Federal Reserve policy, especially in light of sluggish overall economic growth and employment activity, could have profound impact.

 

Fuel Update

Crude oil prices remained between $94-$98/bbl for the week after Labor Day, and average North Carolina prices for regular unleaded stayed at or close to the $3.80/gallon mark influenced prior to the holiday by summer driving, rising corn prices and storm activity in the Gulf of Mexico.

Corn prices remain a concern with respect to their impact on ethanol.They are below highs experienced in mid-to-late August, but still at an oppressive price in trading.

 

USDA
Continued crop export growth expected for 2013

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed optimism following release of future export estimates should remain above and near record levels set in the recent past.

This year, total farm exports are expected to reach $136.5 billion, close to a record level set last year. The record is expected to be set again in 2013, when exports are projected to reach $143.5 billion.

Export value growth has been 50% since 2009, influenced by increased demand from developing countries along with higher food prices.

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