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Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Posts Tagged ‘Unemployment

Livingston Survey strengthens

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One of my economic “touchstones” is the semi-annual Livingston Survey, begun in 1946 by the famed economist and journalist Joseph A. Livingston.  The survey continues today under the auspices of the Philadelphia FED.  Twice a year they survey a panel of economic forecasters on the key metrics of unemployment, GDP growth, inflation, T-Bill and Bond rates, and the S&P 500.  Not only are their opinions of interest, but also the change in the central tendency of those opinions over time.

For example, six months ago, the panel forecasted that year-end unemployment would be 4.3%, with a slight decline to 4.2% by mid-year, 2018.  Now, this forecast has shifted slightly downward, with an expected year-end unemployment rate of 4.1%, mid-year 2018 projected at 4.0%, and year-end 2018 at 3.9%.  These are decidedly low numbers, and suggest an econonomy at nearly full steam. (“Frictional” unemployment, which is the lowest level we would normally see, is generally thought to be close to 3%.)

Previously, year-end GDP growth was projected to come in at about 2.5%.  That’s now up to 2.9%, settling back to about 2.5% by mid-year 2018.  Projections of inflation are also solid, with CPI ending the year at about 2.1% and PPI (producer price index) at about 3.0%.  Both of these estimates are slightly lower than previously forecasted.  Intriguingly, CPI is forecasted to stay about the same in the coming year, while PPI should decline to about 2.0% by the end of the year next year.

The cost of debt is projected to increase in 2018, albeit at modest rates (and lower than previously projected).  Previously, the 10-year bond rate was forecasted to end the year at about 2.75%, but now should end the year at about 2.45%, according to the panel.  Rates should rise in 2018, but more slowly than previously projected, ending 2018 around 3.0%

Finally, the June survey projected that the S&P 500 would end the year at 2470, but now the panelists think the market will end the year at 2644.  (I note that the S&P sits at 2691 as I write this.)  The S&P is projected to end 2018 at 2805, or about 6% higher for the year.

The full survey also contains data on a variety of other topics (auto sales, corporate profits, average weekly earnings, etc.).  You can subscribe by visiting the Phily Fed at


Written by johnkilpatrick

December 18, 2017 at 11:25 am

Livingston Survey

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I’ve noted in the past that one of my favorite economic forecasts comes from the Philadelphia FED.  The semi-annual Livingston Survey captures the sentiments of 28 leading economic forecasters on key metrics, such as unemployment, GDP growth, and inflation.  Year after year, the forecast remains fairly accurate and steady — much to the disappointment of politicians who fail to realize that the worlds largest non-centrally-planned economy changes course fairly slowly.

Of course, 2017 may be a bit of an exception.  Indeed, so was 2009.  The forecast can’t take into account shocks to the system (such as the recent economic melt-down) nor can it handle significant policy shifts from D.C.  I have some “gut” feelings that differ a bit from the Livingston folks, and I’ll note those at the end.

Now, on to the details.  GDP growth for the second half of 2016 was a bit better than had been previously forecast, coming in at about 2.7% rather than the previously forecast 2.4%.  Looking forward, the forecasters project a 2.2% annualized growth in the economy during the first half of the coming year, rising slightly to 2.4% in the second half of 2017.

Ironically, unemployment appears to be coming in slightly higher than forecasted, about 4.9% rather than the previously projected 4.7%.  Of course, neither of these numbers is anything to complain about.  Forecasters look to continued improvement in the unemployment numbers through the coming year, ending up around 4.6% next December.

Inflation measured by the consumer price index (CPI) is right on target at 1.3%.  Next year, forecasters are projecting 2.4% (slightly up from previous 2017 forecasts) and the crystal balls (which is all they are this far out) suggest 2.5% in 2018.  The yield curve is ending the year a bit steeper than previously projected.  Earlier forecasts put the short end (3-month T-Bill) at 0.75% and the long end (10-year) at 2.25%.  Currently, they see the year ending at 0.55% and 2.3% respectively.  For 2017, the soothsayers forecast a year-end 1.12% at the short end and 2.75% at the high.  This is somewhat higher at the high end and lower at the near end than had been projected previously, suggesting an expectation of higher overall interest rates in the future.  Finally, forecasters see the stock market rising over the next two years, but at a fairly lackluster rate.

I promised my own bit of forecasting.  During the tumultuous months surrounding the recent melt-down, I played a bit of follow-the-leader with this survey, and went on record that the melt-down would be short-lived.  Boy was I wrong!  As noted, this survey is pretty good when the economic ship is on a steady course, but doesn’t handle rough water very well.  For the past several years, we’ve had an unprecedented period of economic growth, by all metrics (GDP, stock prices, unemployment, and inflation).  Just from a pure market-cycle perspective, we may be overdue for some unpleasantries.  Looking at the political horizon, I’ve already noted that politicians are generally disappointed that the economy doesn’t move as quickly as they wish or even in the desired directly.  That said, we have a Congress that is frothing to trim the Federal budget, and will probably opt to do so in the transfer payments arena (welfare, health care subsidies, etc.).  They’ll hope to balance this with tax cuts.  However, tax cuts fall slowly, and on one sector of the economy, while entitlement cuts (and any budget cuts, for that matter) happen quickly and are usually borne by a different segment of the economy.   I think I’ll be watching GDP reports fairly closely for the next couple of years.  I would note what happened in the years leading up to the 1982 recession — not withstanding inflation (driving nominal interest rates), the economy looked OK in 1981, and the metrics were generally pointed in the right direction.  (For a good visual representation, I’d refer you to the August, 1981, report to Congress of the Council of Economic Advisors, a copy of which you can view on the St. Louis FED’s website by clicking here.)

All in all, we’ve been focused on politics for the past several months, and now we’re going to find if those political decisions have actual economic repercussions.  Stay tuned!

December’s Livingston Survey

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The late columnist Joseph A Livingston started surveying economists about their forecasts back in 1946. It’s the oldest continuing survey of its kind, and is continued twice a year under the auspices of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. One of the neat things about this semi-annual report is that it compares the current central tendency of projections to the projections which were being made six months ago. In short, we can directly compare how economic forecasts are changing over time.

One of the biggest shifts is in the GDP growth rate for the 2nd half of 2015.  Six months ago, economists were projecting that we’d end the year with a modestly healthy 3.1% annual rate of growth.  Now, economists are forecasting we’ll end the year at about 2.1% — a fairly significant shift in sentiment.  Similar declines in GDP growth are projected for 2016.  Check my prior blog post about the 12th District report on the western economy, and particularly the impact a stronger dollar is having on the export market.

The good news — and it’s slight — is an improvement in the projections about unemployment.  Six months ago, economists were forecasting we’d end the year with an unemployment rate of 5.1%.  This has now been revised downward, ever so slightly, to 4.9%.  Also, inflation continues to be dead-on-arrival.  From the end of 2014 to the end of 2015, the consumer price index is projected to rise only 0.1%, in line with prior forecasts, and the producer price index is actually projected to fall by 3.2%.  Both indices are expected to swell in the coming year, but only slightly.  The current CPI forecast for the coming year is 1.8%, and PPI is 0.7%.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to pick a reason for this, but can you say “energy costs”?

Six months ago, interest rates were forecasted to rise.  Actual increases are somewhat lower than previously forecasted.  Six months ago, forecasters predicted we’d end the year with 3-month T-bill rates at 0.59%.  In reality, the November 23 auction was at 0.14%, although rates are trending up in December (0.28% as of Monday) in anticipation of Fed rate increases.  The current forecast is for 3-month rates to end the year around 0.23%, and for 1-year rates to end around 2.3% (down from the previously forecasted 2.5%).  Forecasters currently predict 3-month T-bills will hit 1.12% by the end of 2016, and 10-year notes will end next year around 2.75%.

Finally, forecasters are asked to predict the S&P 500 index for the end of the year as well as the end of next year.  Six months ago, the consensus forecast was an S&P level of 2158 for the end of the year, and this has now softened to 2090.  (It’s helpful to note that the S&P opened just under 2048 this morning.)  Forecasters currently project the S&P will hit about 2185 by the end of next year, which is an anemic growth of 4.5% over the coming 12 months.

If you’d like your own copy, which includes much more detail on these forecasts, you can download it for free here.

12th Fed District issues 3q report

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Greenfield is a global firm (albeit mostly in the U.S.), and even though we’re headquartered in Seattle, we try to focus our attention broadly rather than locally.  That said, the 12th Federal Reserve District just released First Glance 12L (3Q15) which takes an early cut at the data from the nine western states.   It’s very telling data — the “left coast” as I like to call it tends to suffer worse when times are bad and boom better when times are good.  Thus, there are some interesting facts and figures to be gleaned from this well-written report.

Naturally, the report is focused on the health of the member banks in the region, but the macro-econ factors driving that health are of much broader importance.  Nationally, unemployment stood at 5.1% at the end of the 3rd quarter.  Western states tended to be a bit worse off, with 3 states (Idaho, Utah, and Hawaii) recording lower unemployment rates and the rest showing higher numbers, ranging from Washington’s 5.2% up to Nevada’s 6.7%.  California, always the thousand pound gorilla in the room, came in at 5.9%.

However, job growth in the western states is well above the national average — 3% annually for the region versus 2% for the U.S. as a whole.  However, the west is digging out of a deeper hole — while job growth nationally hit a trough of -4.9% at the peak of the recession, it bottomed out at -6.7% in the west.  Generally, job growth in the west over the past 20 years had held steady at about one percentage point above the national trend during “boom” years.

Housing starts in the west are well below the pre-recession peaks.  As of September, 2015, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of housing starts stood at 161,000, with 107,000 of that in 2+ family units.  This compares with a peak of 449,000 SAAR in the 2005-2006 period, at a time when 2+ unit housing only made up 85,000 of the starts.  Arguably, the market in the west is still absorbing the huge shadow inventory built up during the boom days.

Commercial vacancy rates in the west have been drifting down for the past few years in the office, industrial, and retail sectors.   Apartments, however, seem to have plateaued around 4.3% at the end of the 3rd quarter, and are forecast to rise a bit to 4.7% a year from now.  I might posit that historically, profit-maximizing apartment vacancy rates have been found to be somewhat higher than these numbers, so apartment managers and owners may have some lee-way to continue building.

The 5 western maritime states are very export-driven, and the strength of the U.S. dollar (up about 18% against major currencies since 2014) has been rough news for those markets.   While western state exports rebounded nicely from the trough of the recession (up about 17% from 2009 to 2010), export growth has flat-lined since 2012.   Regionally, exports declined about 2.5% since last year, with positive growth reported in only four states (Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah).  Bellweather California saw exports decline 3.6%.  Note that in Washington, my semi-home state, exports make up 21.2% of the gross state product.  (We export things like big trucks, big airplanes, software, and agricultural products.)  Hence, this is critically important stuff.

The remainder of the report focuses on the health of the regions banks.  I’ll leave that up to the reader if you care to download your own copy.  Short answer, though, is that the region has seen loan growth accelerate even while the nation as a whole has flattened.  Further, the regions banks tend to be a bit more efficient in terms of expenses and staff, both compared to the nation as a whole and compared to the “boom days” pre-recession.  Both small and large commercial borrowers generally reported tightening credit standards at the end of the 3rd quarter, which is a change from previous reports.  However, consumer borrowers (residential mortgage, credit cards, and auto loans) generally reported easier standards.  The bulk of loan growth for small banks (under $10B) came from non-farm non-residential, while for large banks the biggest growth sector was in consumer lending.  The percentage non-performing assets (the “Texas Ratio”) in the region, which peaked at 38.9% in 2009, is now down to 5.4%, although still higher than in the 2004-2007 period.  By comparison, the national peak hit in 2010 at 19%, and is now standing at 7%, also higher than pre-recession levels.



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The gap in postings is a good indication of just how busy I’ve been the past several months. Whew….

Anyway, the latest semi-annual Livingston Survey just hit my desk from the Phily FED. Just to remind you, the Phily FED surveys a cross-section of top economic forecasters on four key issues — GDP growth, interest rates, unemployment, and inflation. Ironically, the survey came out before this week’s BEA announcement that GDP grew at an annual rate of 4.1% in the 3rd quarter (following a 2.5% growth in the 2nd quarter).

Nonetheless, the Livingston Survey gives a good snapshot of where professional forecasters think the economy will be over the next couple of years. Forecasters generally see GDP growth ending this year around 2.4%, increasing to an annualized rate of 2.5% early next year, and 2.8% in late 2014.

Interest rate forecasts were also surveyed before the recent FED pronouncements about tapering, although the general sense is that markets have been capturing the “taper” news for a while. Forecasters project t-bill rates to continue below 0.1% into 2014, rising to 0.15% by the end of next year, and 0.75% by the end of 2015. Ten-year bond yields should follow suit, with rates rising above 3% in mid-2014, up to 3.25% by the end of next year. Of course, time will tell on these projections.

Finally, unemployment is projected to dip below 7% after mid-2014, and finish the year around 6.7%. Inflation should hold below 2%, although it is projected to creep up somewhat from the current rates.

The Phily FED produces a series of economic surveys throughout the year. For more information, visit their research department.

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Quarterly Econ Survey from Phily FED

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One of my favorite regular “reads” is the Survey of Professional Forecasters” from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. The main survey comes out quarterly, with occasional special editions thrown in along the way. The brilliance of the survey is its simplicity — ask a large panel of economic forecasters where they think the economy is going in terms of a handful of key indicators — GDP, unemployment, inflation. Then calculate the median and the range of responses.

The medians are fairly predictable and “sticky” (that is, this quarter’s results look a lot like last quarter’s). However, the interesting stuff is buried in the way the distribution of results change. For example, both the last survey and the current survey find that the largest number of economists think unemployment will average between 7.0% and 7.4% next year (with a median of 7.1%), down somewhat from this year. That’s pretty predictable stuff. However, this year’s distribution is skewed to the low side (a very large number of economists think unemployment will dip this year and end up as low as 7% on average) but next year, the distribution is fairly even, with the bulk of economists forecasting anywhere from 6% to 8%. In short, 2014 is pretty cloudy right now, and that means that hedging your economic bets isn’t a bad idea.

GDP projections are somewhat less rosy. In the previous survey (2nd quarter, 2013), the largest number of economists projected 2013 GDP in the 2% to 3% range, with the median at 2%. Today, that has dropped a full half-percentage point, down to 1.5%. Previously, 2014 was projected at 2.8%, and that has now been downgraded to 2.6%, although as we’ve already established, 2014 is pretty much a guessing game.

Inflation continues to be pretty-much a flat line, with a lot of “1.8%” and “2.0%” on the chart. In short, hardly anyone sees inflation above 2.3% or so in the foreseeable future.

To download the full report, go to

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 16, 2013 at 8:53 am

Tea Leaves and Such

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Flying back from Milwaukee to Seattle last night, I sat next to a fellow who owns several big truck dealerships in the mid-west.  (Seattle, famed for Boeing and Microsoft, is the lesser-recognized headquarters of Paccar, the world’s third largest maker of heavy trucks, after Daimler and Volvo. Last year, they made and sold over $16 Billion worth of Kenworths and Peterbilts.)

ANYWAY, after the usual “how’s business?” question, I got an earful. Turns out no one’s buying heavy trucks right now, even though financing is historically affordable, and customers have cash. Why?  Simply put, his customers are scared of the fiscal cliff.  (We also talked about customers deferring potential acquisitions until after/if tax rates go up, but he said that this wasn’t a big issue in his surveys of customer sentiments.)  He noted that demand for long-haul trucking was down, and noted that his trucking-company customers were reporting a lower volume of hauling for consumer retailers.

Now, if this was an isolated incident, we could write it off.  However, the danger of the fiscal cliff isn’t just what will happen after January 1.  Much like an impending hurricane, people are already packing their bags and getting out of the way or hunkering down and bolting the doors.

What is the impact on real estate?  While it’s too early to completely quantify, clearly there is reluctance right now to make new investments in office, industrial, and retail.  Add to this the realization that the apartment boom may have leveled off, and we have a fairly flat new development market on the horizon. This doesn’t bode well for real estate private equity firms that are focused on development profits or capital gains, but it does mean that income-oriented real estate (publicly traded REITs for example) may exhibit some buying opportunities due to both their tax advantaged nature.  The most recent Current Market Commentary from NAREIT shows slight downward trends in apartment, office, and retail vacancy, with all three sectors showing positive rental rate growth (albeit at lower levels than earlier this year).   The three-year moving average for renter household formation continues to trend upward, while the owner-occupied household formation is in negative territory (despite recent gains in home sales and housing starts).

Notwithstanding the dangers of the fiscal cliff, changes in non-farm payrolls have been strong and positive every month since mid-2010, and even though unemployment is higher than anyone wants to see it, the trend has been solidly downward since the peak of late 2009.  As such, the fiscal cliff is the most significant economic problem on the horizon today. Fix it, and we continue on the track to full recovery.  Let us drive off the cliff, and…. well, that’s a pretty good mental picture, eh?

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 6, 2012 at 9:57 am