Thursday, April 5, 2012

Through the Eyes of The US and Australian Central Banks

I'm taking a long weekend this weekend.  So, today I wanted to leave you with some meaty reading to keep you occupied until Monday.  Consider the following statements from the Australian and US central banks regarding the overall economic situation.  All of these were released this week.

From Australia:
At its meeting today, the Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 4.25 per cent.

Recent information is consistent with the expectation that the world economy will grow at a below-trend pace this year, but does not suggest that a deep downturn is occurring. Several countries in Europe will record very weak outcomes, but the US economy is continuing a moderate expansion. Growth in China has moderated, as was intended, and is likely to remain at a more measured and sustainable pace in the future. Conditions around other parts of Asia softened in 2011, partly due to natural disasters, but are not showing signs of further deterioration. Some moderation in inflation has allowed policymakers in the region to ease monetary policies somewhat. Commodity prices declined for a few months last year and are noticeably off their peaks, but have been relatively stable for a while now, at quite high levels. Australia’s terms of trade have peaked, though they remain high. 

Financial market sentiment has generally continued to improve in recent weeks and capital markets are supplying funding to corporations and well-rated banks. At the margin, wholesale funding costs are tending to decline, though they remain higher, relative to benchmark rates, than in mid 2011. But the task of putting European banks and sovereigns onto a sound footing for the longer term remains large and Europe will remain a potential source of adverse shocks for some time yet.

In Australia, growth in domestic demand ran at its fastest for four years in 2011, driven by private spending. Nonetheless the balance of recent information suggests that output growth was somewhat below trend over the year. There are differences in performance between sectors, and considerable structural change is occurring. Labour market conditions softened during 2011, though the rate of unemployment has been little changed for some time.

Interest rates for borrowers remain close to their medium-term average. Credit growth remains modest. Housing prices have shown some signs of stabilising recently, after having declined for most of 2011, but generally the housing market remains soft. The exchange rate has remained high over recent months, even though the terms of trade have declined somewhat.

In underlying terms, inflation was around 2½ per cent in 2011. CPI inflation was higher than that but will fall over the next quarter or two. It is currently expected that inflation will be in the 2–3 per cent range over the coming one to two years. This forecast abstracts from the effects of the carbon price and also embodies an assumption that productivity growth in the economy increases somewhat as a result of the structural change now occurring. At its next meeting, the Board will have the opportunity to reassess the outlook for inflation, taking into account not only data on demand and output but also forthcoming information on prices.

The Board eased monetary policy late in 2011. Since then, its judgement has been that, with growth expected to be close to trend, inflation close to target and lending rates close to average, the setting of monetary policy was appropriate. The Board's view was also that, were demand conditions to weaken materially, the inflation outlook would provide scope for easier monetary policy. At today's meeting, the Board judged the pace of output growth to be somewhat lower than earlier estimated, but also thought it prudent to see forthcoming key data on prices to reassess its outlook for inflation, before considering a further step to ease monetary policy
From the US:
The information reviewed at the March 13 meeting suggested that economic activity was expanding moderately. Labor market conditions continued to improve and the unemployment rate declined further, although it remained elevated. Overall consumer price inflation was relatively subdued in recent months. More recently, prices of crude oil and gasoline increased substantially. Measures of long-run inflation expectations remained stable.

Private nonfarm employment rose at an appreciably faster average pace in January and February than in the fourth quarter of last year, and declines in total government employment slowed in recent months. The unemployment rate decreased to 8.3 percent in January and stayed at that level in February. Both the rate of long-duration unemployment and the share of workers employed part time for economic reasons continued to be high. Initial claims for unemployment insurance trended lower over the intermeeting period and were at a level consistent with further moderate job gains.

Manufacturing production increased considerably in January, and the rate of manufacturing capacity utilization stepped up. Factory output was boosted by a sizable expansion in the production of motor vehicles, but there also were solid and widespread gains in other industries. In February, motor vehicle assemblies remained near the strong pace recorded in January; they were scheduled to edge up, on net, through the second quarter. Broader indicators of manufacturing activity, such as the diffusion indexes of new orders from the national and regional manufacturing surveys, were at levels suggesting moderate increases in factory production in the coming months.

Households' real disposable income increased, on balance, in December and January as labor earnings rose solidly. Moreover, households' net worth grew in the fourth quarter of last year and likely was boosted further by gains in equity values thus far this year. Nevertheless, real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) were reported to have been flat in December and January. Although households' purchases of motor vehicles rose briskly, spending for other consumer goods and services was weak. In February, nominal retail sales excluding purchases at motor vehicle and parts outlets increased moderately, while motor vehicle sales continued to climb. Consumer sentiment was little changed in February, and households remained downbeat about both the economic outlook and their own income and finances.

Housing market activity improved somewhat in recent months but continued to be restrained by the substantial inventory of foreclosed and distressed properties, tight credit conditions for mortgage loans, and uncertainty about the economic outlook and future home prices. After increasing in December, starts of new single-family homes remained at that higher level in January, likely boosted in part by unseasonably warm weather; in both months, starts ran above permit issuance. Sales of new and existing homes stepped up further in recent months, though they still remained at quite low levels. Home prices were flat, on balance, in December and January.

Real business expenditures on equipment and software rose at a notably slower pace in the fourth quarter of last year than earlier in the year. Moreover, nominal orders and shipments of nondefense capital goods declined in January. However, a number of forward-looking indicators of firms' equipment spending improved, including some survey measures of business conditions and capital spending plans. Nominal business spending for nonresidential construction firmed, on net, in December and January, but the level of spending was still subdued, in part reflecting high vacancy rates and tight credit conditions for construction loans. Inventories in most industries looked to be reasonably well aligned with sales in recent months, although stocks of motor vehicles continued to be lean.

Data for federal government spending in January and February indicated that real defense expenditures continued to step down after decreasing significantly in the fourth quarter. Real state and local government purchases looked to be declining at a slower pace than last year, as those governments' payrolls edged up in January and February and their nominal construction spending rose a little in January.

The U.S. international trade deficit widened in December and January, as imports increased more than exports. The expansion of imports was spread across most categories, with petroleum products and automotive products posting strong gains in January. The rise in exports was supported by shipments of capital goods and automotive products, while exports of consumer goods and industrial supplies declined on average. Data through December indicated that net exports made a moderate negative contribution to the rate of growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) in the fourth quarter of last year.

Overall U.S. consumer prices, as measured by the PCE price index, increased at a modest rate in December and January. Consumer energy prices rose in January after decreasing markedly in December, and survey data indicated that gasoline prices moved up considerably in February and early March. Meanwhile, increases in consumer food prices slowed in recent months. Consumer prices excluding food and energy also rose modestly in December and January. Near-term inflation expectations from the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers were unchanged in February, and longer-term inflation expectations in the survey remained in their recent range.

Measures of labor compensation generally indicated that nominal wage gains continued to be subdued. Increases in compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector picked up somewhat over the four quarters of 2011. However, the employment cost index increased at a more modest pace than the compensation per hour measure over the past year, and the 12-month change in average hourly earnings for all employees remained muted in January and February.

Recent indicators suggested some improvement in foreign economic activity early this year after a significant slowing in the fourth quarter of last year. Aggregate output in the euro area contracted in the fourth quarter, but manufacturing purchasing managers indexes (PMIs) improved in January and February relative to their low fourth-quarter readings, and consumer and business confidence edged up. Floods caused steep production declines in the fourth quarter in Thailand and also had negative effects on output in other countries linked through Thai supply chains. However, economic activity in Thailand recovered sharply around year-end, and manufacturing PMIs moved up across Asia through February. Higher prices for energy and food put upward pressure on headline inflation in foreign economies, but measures of core inflation remained subdued.