Tag Archives: Federal Reserve

Meanwhile Back With My Soy Beans and an Orange Blossom Who Can’t Shoot Straight

So, here’s from the Farm Report:

Soybeans are lower, breaking the support line from their three-day rally overnight. Traders will continue to scour today’s export data for clue on how foreign buyers are responding to the bargains created by Chinese tariffs. Sales are expected to rise after disappointing results last week. Vegetable oil markets in Asia were lower today, losing around a fifth of a cent per pound.  September soybean oil futures in China fell to 36.844 cents and September palm oil futures in Malaysia were at 24.473 cents.

and on soy beans in particular

If production doesn’t swell too much, November futures may try to hold the $8 level into the August report. USDA put the bottom of its average cash price for the 2018 crop at $8, a level already reached in many local markets around the country. It’s still a $2 climb back to profitability. But most growers appear to have priced a good chunk of their expected production when offered a good price this winter and spring.

Hold this thought — $8.00 per for soy bean farmers or — it’s a really bad year down on the farm. “USDA’s July 12 monthly report put a number on the lost revenue farmers face: $325 million in new crop sales. That number is based on the amount the agency lowered its price range for crop, 75 cents a bushel.” [WSR]  Soy bean prices are about $8.55, nearly a ten year low. [CNN money]

All right, it’s not that I am in the soy bean business. It’s not that I expect ANY reader of this blog to have any more connection to soy beans than the occasional purchase of soy milk.  It’s that the little beans are a metaphor, an anchor, a data point, to watch the inexplicable economic idiocy of the current administration ensconced in the Oval Office.

Those slap dash, ham-fisted, wild west, off the cuff, distributive bargaining ploy, grandiose threats and counter threats being on offer from the mis-administration in lieu of any real coordinated trade strategy and policy have real world consequences for real world people — people like Iowa soy bean farmers who can’t take the hit if soy bean prices drop below $6.00.  Did we notice all those “ifs” and assumptions in the USDA pricing report?  Like automobile manufacturers in South Carolina who don’t have to take a hit if moving export production to friendlier climes will put money back into their bottom lines.  Like household appliance manufacturers who thought tariffs were such a lovely idea when they were on Samsung and LG, but on steel and aluminum not so much.

We have a *President who can’t get to “yes.”  He couldn’t get to “yes,” on a health care bill and ended up with a bill he didn’t want.  He couldn’t get to “yes” on a DACA bill, and no one’s ended up with anything at all.  He couldn’t get to “yes” on immigration policy, and ended up with a court order to reunite families in which he, in all likelihood, cannot make yet another deadline.  He can’t get to “yes” on NAFTA terms with Mexico and Canada.  He can’t get to “yes” with Asian regional trade and commerce agreements.  He just can’t get to “yes.”

My way or the highway distributive bargaining works when I want to purchase a vehicle and there are 15 dealerships in a 50 mile radius.  As noted before, the bottom line is the “walk away” point. However, there is no other China, no other Mexico, no other Canada, no other European Union, no other United Kingdom, no other Germany, no other Japan, no other France, no other Brazil.  There is no Walking Away point because there is no other place to walk to.

The price of soy beans (or cars, refrigerators, beer cans, or washing machines) cannot be determined by simply yelling at the dealer, threatening to bludgeon him with penalties,  loudly pronouncing another salvo of letters to the editor about their poor service, and later threatening to sue for ‘false’ something or another.  We have a global economy based on supply and demand principles which Orange Blossom pretends to understand, but which he provides scant evidence thereof.

And NOW he wants to weigh in (at over 239 pounds) on what the Federal Reserve should be doing with interest rates!  [CNBC]

Will someone, anyone, please take him down to that portion of the White House where the last evidence of the fire set by British troops on August 24, 1814 remains, lock him there, quietly close whatever doors are behind him — or at least make him SHUT THE H___ UP?

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Filed under Economy, Politics

DIY Business News: How to stop yelling at the TV screen and get some real news

Stock Ticker Old

Spare me the whining about Americans and their financial illiteracy.  It’s not like they are getting any help from institutions which ought to be assisting them. 

Media bashing gets a bit cheap at times, but in this realm the broadcast media isn’t delivering anything close to real “business news.”  For starters, most of what passes for “business” news on the cable TV outlets is nothing more than financial sector gossip and stock market reporting.   When everything is said and scrolled across the screen, what the consumer has gotten is information of the stock markets, by the stock markets and for the stock markets.  

If we take the most generous definition of an investor possible – one including individual investors, investors in retirement 401(k)’s, IRAs, mutual funds, and ETF’s – then we can claim that 48% of the adults in the U.S. have money invested in “the market.” [CNN]  Meaning, 52% of Americans have no investment in “the market” at all, and one could question how carefully those who have funds in the retirement accounts are attending to the investments made on their behalf.  Drilling a bit deeper into the numbers we find that only 13.8% of all U.S. families held any individual stock. [CNN] “Ownership of savings bonds, other bonds, directly held stocks, and pooled investment funds sustained sizable drops in ownership rates between 2010 and 2013, although none of the four types of assets are commonly held, with ownership rates in 2013 varying between 1.4 percent (other bonds) and 13.8 percent (directly held stocks).” [FED pdf]

The best face we can put on this is that what passes for business news in this country is stock market information of direct interest to at best 14% of the nation’s adult population.  Why? We can guess — (1) It pleases the managerial types who are focused on short term gains in stock prices? (2) It’s cheap to produce?  Reporting on stock prices is really easy, especially if the big driver is something accessible like the Dow Jones Industrial Average. (3) It gives executives an opportunity to tout the value (whatever that might be) of their companies, thus moving their stock prices up?  However, what it doesn’t do is give anyone a clear overall picture of business in the United States of America.

Do It Yourself

If business news isn’t what’s on offer from the news channels which purport to provide it – then where to find it? 

The Federal Reserve has all manner of publications available online which will inform the inquisitive about consumer and personal finance.  Auto and Student debt is up at the moment, while the home ownership rate is falling, but not as many homeowners are now in default.  Interested in income inequality, or wealth gaps? Information is available from the FED on those topics as well.  Look and one can find all manner of information and analysis, unfettered from political punditry, on the subject.  In fact, one can discover that the way we talk about income inequality may be a function of how we measure it.

The San Francisco Federal Reserve is pleased to highlight its blog, with features ranging from how the FED recycles old currency to how Medicare payments may be curtailing inflationary trends.  If more generalized information is the target, then the Beige Book is as good a source as any:

“Commonly known as the Beige Book, this report is published eight times per year. Each Federal Reserve Bank gathers anecdotal information on current economic conditions in its District through reports from Bank and Branch directors and interviews with key business contacts, economists, market experts, and other sources. The Beige Book summarizes this information by District and sector. An overall summary of the twelve district reports is prepared by a designated Federal Reserve Bank on a rotating basis.” [FED]

Think of the Beige Book as “one stop shopping” for general economic news in each of the FED’s regions.

 Hard Hat

Labor:  A steady diet of cable business news might leave a person with the idea that labor news doesn’t exist except so far as it concerns minimum wage issues, or the latest protest of less than living wages. It’s more difficult to find than information about economic trends, but it’s there.   A person might want to start with Labor Press.OrgLabor Notes, is another source.  Union labor issues are well publicized in AFL-CIO sites.  There’s more information available from the SEIU, and AFSCME.

Those cable shows – and they are just ‘shows’ – could fill a goodly amount of their time just from Department of Labor information.  They won’t because they’re too busy tossing softballs to CEOs, but they could for example offer the investor’s side of the argument about fiduciary responsibility and financial advisers from DoL information.  If it’s numbers that are wanted, there’s a whole bureau for those – the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Want the current consumer price index, the unemployment rate, payroll employment figures, average hourly earnings, the producer price index, productivity statistics, or the employment cost index? All these are available from the Department of Labor.

Doing Business:  Republican presidential candidates Cruz and Kasich both proposed eliminating the Department of Commerce.  This is taking the Tea Party Express right over the edge into the Silly Swamp.  One excellent source of information about our economy is the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which compiles data regarding personal income and outlays – read: income and spending – what could be more “economic” than that?  Want information concerning the Gross Domestic Product? Consumer Spending? Corporate Profits? Fixed Assets?  Balance of Payments? State and Metropolitan GDP? Quarterly GDP by industry? It’s all available from the Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.

When thinking of broadcast media it’s important to remember that what keeps the cable ‘business’ news going are advertising sales, and a commercial which might cost $2,000 to $3,000 for a network broadcast sponsorship could be as cheap as $175 on cable.  Little wonder their business seems to be limited to softball interviews and streaming the DJIA numbers on the screen – which you could do at home on any computer monitor.  Those shows are relatively banal because they probably can’t afford anything else.

Enterprises like Bush’s Baked Beans, Chef Michael’s Canine Creations, and Slap Chop are right in the mix with Ford, Chevrolet, and Wal-Mart sponsoring what passes for business and news reporting. [HuffPo] We’d be better served to Keep Calm and Do It Yourself.

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Filed under Commerce Department, Economy, labor, media, Tea Party Express

Conflated Issues Inflated Fears

Inflation chart cause

There’s fear, right here in the outback, that raising the minimum wage will drive up inflation.  The Humboldt Sun (Sept. 18, 2015 p3)  includes a long LTE titled, “$15 minimum wage would stimulate inflation.”   The author writes:

“The government requires businesses to pay employees more by passing minimum wage legislation. This increase is not because workers are more productive, so it costs more to produce goods and services. Businesses might lay off workers to bring down labor costs, but that results in less output. Ultimately, they must raise the cost of consumer goods.”


There are several macro-economic concepts mashed into this, but let’s assume that the writer is speaking of the form of inflation diagrammed in Chart 2 above, “Cost-Push Inflation,”  defined as follows:

Cost-push inflation … occurs when prices of production process inputs increase. Rapid wage increases or rising raw material prices are common causes of this type of inflation. The sharp rise in the price of imported oil during the 1970s provides a typical example of cost-push inflation (illustrated in Chart 2). Rising energy prices caused the cost of producing and transporting goods to rise. Higher production costs led to a decrease in aggregate supply (from S0 to S1) and an increase in the overall price level because the equilibrium point moved from point Z to point Y. [SFFRB]

Cost-Push inflation might be presented as the Inflation Monster, IF it were the only kind of inflation possible – it isn’t.  There’s also Demand-Pull.  And we return to the San Francisco Federal Reserve for its basic definition:

“Demand-pull inflation occurs when aggregate demand for goods and services in an economy rises more rapidly than an economy’s productive capacity. One potential shock to aggregate demand might come from a central bank that rapidly increases the supply of money. See Chart 1 for an illustration of what will likely happen as a result of this shock. The increase in money in the economy will increase demand for goods and services from D0 to D1. In the short run, businesses cannot significantly increase production and supply (S) remains constant. The economy’s equilibrium moves from point A to point B and prices will tend to rise, resulting in inflation. [SFFRB]

And how does a central bank increase the supply of money? Monetary policy.  The textbook way, prior to September 2008, was that if the opportunity costs for holding noninterest-bearing bank reserves was the nominal short-term interest rate (federal funds rate), then we’d have a situation in which if the funds rate were low the quantity of reserves banks would want to hold would increase. [SFFed]  Note: the banks have an interest in putting reserves to work by lending them.  If a bank found itself with “excess” reserves the obvious thing to do would be to find borrowers and earn a return on the money. Thus the situation wherein the cost to the banks of borrowing money is essentially zero, in a post 2007-08 effort to support the financial markets and kick-start the economy.  Now what?

Why hasn’t there been some awesome Demand-Pull Inflation?  Monetary Policy. The situation has changed, although few outside the financial commentators have paid much notice.

“The change is that the Fed now pays interest on reserves. The opportunity cost of holding reserves is now the difference between the federal funds rate and the interest rate on reserves. The Fed will likely raise the interest rate on reserves as it raises the target federal funds rate (see Board of Governors 2011). Therefore, for banks, reserves at the Fed are close substitutes for Treasury bills in terms of return and safety. A Fed exchange of bank reserves that pay interest for a T-bill that carries a very similar interest rate has virtually no effect on the economy. Instead, what matters for the economy is the level of interest rates, which are affected by monetary policy.” [SFFed]

If Demand-Pull inflation is corralled by monetary policy which is based on the Federal Reserve now paying interest on reserves, doesn’t this argue against raising wages which will increase unit costs of production and hence raise consumer prices?  Not necessarily.

The author of the LTE maintains: “The Federal Reserve has held interest rates at near 0 percent for several years. Some claimed cheap loans would stimulate the economy. The problem is that banks have been fiscally conservative, with few loans and little interest rate to savers.”

A crucial part of this puzzle is the press release from October 6, 2008 from the Federal Reserve stating:

“The Federal Reserve Board on Monday announced that it will begin to pay interest on depository institutions’ required and excess reserve balances. The payment of interest on excess reserve balances will give the Federal Reserve greater scope to use its lending programs to address conditions in credit markets while also maintaining the federal funds rate close to the target established by the Federal Open Market Committee.”

Yes, the interest rate remained low, but the banks with excess reserves on hand had less incentive to loan out those reserves if they could simply leave them on the books and earn interest.  The Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act of 2006 allowing this situation  [S 2856 109th] was quite generous to the bankers, such as section 201 which “(1) authorize payment of interest on funds maintained by a depository institution at a Federal Reserve bank; and (2) authorize the Federal Reserve Board to reduce to 0% the reserves required to be maintained by a depository institution against its transaction accounts. (The current requirement ranges from 3% to 14%.)” [GovTrack]

While the Federal Reserve makes a nice scapegoat for those who believe in broader extensions of consumer credit, it really doesn’t do to belabor its role (or lack thereof) in stimulating the consumer end of the economy when Congress provided the vehicle by which the wall between brokers and bankers was breached (Title 1, Section 101) and compounded the issue by enacting authorization for banks to sit on reserves in order to earn interest (Title 2, Section 202).

And, here’s where the LTE author swims in shark territory – a monetary policy which encourages broader consumer lending would also be a factor in the creation of Demand-Push inflationary pressures.  A person really can’t have it both ways.

How much is too much?

There are, in both fact and theory TWO forms of inflation.  Nor can we assume that inflation is always a bad thing.  Most economists like an inflation rate of just under 3%. [Investopedia]  Why? Because the alternative – deflation —  is even worse.  During deflationary periods workers get laid off, consumers spend less, people hold off major purchases believing prices will fall further, and the spiral continues – downward.

Consumer Price Index 2005 to 2015 The blue line includes items like energy/food which are inherently more volatile, the line for all others shows a fairly consistent rate of inflation right around the 2.5% mark – remember 3% is the economist’s ideal. It’s also useful to note that the wide variances occur between January 2008 and January 2010 – when the U.S. economy was trembling before and  in the wake of the financial crash.

Consumer Price Index chart If fact, before we become too alarmed by inflationary trends we might want to take a look at the column highlighted above from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and note that we are well below that 3% threshold.  In other words, it’s time to stop worrying excessively about inflation – both forms – and start being concerned with why wages and salaries have tended to stagnate over the past thirty years?  [Pew]

“…after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.” [Pew] see also: [EPI]

Our local author is still alarmed, “Recent price spikes are more noticeable than the usual gradual increases.  That naturally leads to call for a minimum wage increase. But if granted, the inflation cycle will begin again.”  To which we’d have to ask:

  • What recent price spikes? The annual inflation rate as calculated by the BLS Consumer Price Index, the figures the economists use, has been less than 2.5% since 2006.  Further, the prices of gasoline has dropped from about $4.11 in July 2008 to $2.73 as of August 2015. [EIA]
  • If not those phantom price spikes, then what else could raise the call for an increase in the minimum wage?  The trends in stagnant wages and salaries?
  • What inflation cycle?  The annual increase in inflation hasn’t risen above 2.5% since 2006 and 3% is the threshold used by most economists to determine a “significant” increase.  During five of the last ten years we’ve experienced inflation of less than 2%.
  • However, let’s not assume that the author is referring to the here and now but to the ubiquitous “awfulness to come somewhere down the road about which we should be terribly alarmed.”  Is there anything in the statistical tables indicating that an increase in the federal minimum wage would yield inflation rates in excess of traditionally  held economic standards?  Given that the federal minimum wage has been raised 22 times since first authorized in 1938, has there been any drop in the real GDP per capita in the last 75 years? (Hint: no)

If it’s not consumer spending driving an inflation cycle in the modern economic environment – what is?  There is something about which we ought to be worried, but it’s not your father’s inflation cycle – it’s the climate created by the financialists:

“Both gross and net business debt have continued to rise since 2007, but the proceeds have been almost entirely recycled into financial engineering—including more than $2 trillion of stock buybacks and many trillions more of basically pointless M&A deals.

This diversion of the $2 trillion gain in business debt outstanding since 2007 to financial engineering is owing to the near zero after-tax cost of corporate debt. The latter has caused the enslavement of the C-suite to the instant gratification of rising share prices and stock options value in the Fed’s Wall Street casino.” [ZeroHedge]

Not to put too fine a point to it, but the brakes will be applied to any inflationary pressure by the bursting of the next financial bubble.

References and Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “What are some of the factors that contribute to a rise in inflation?’ October 2002.  John C. Williams, “Economic Research: Monetary Policy, Money, and Inflation,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Economic Letters, July 9, 2012.  Bernard Shull, “The impact of financial reform on Federal Reserve Autonomy,” Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, working paper 735, November 2012. (pdf)  Douglas Rice, “Inflation: It’s a Good Thing,” Investopedia, May 22, 2009.  Bureau of Labor Statistics: Consumer Price Index, 12 month percentage change. (2015) “For most workers wages have barely budged for decades,” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2014.  EPI, wage stagnation in nine charts, January 6, 2015.  CBPP, “A guide to statistics on historical trends in Income Inequality,” revised July 15, 2015.  L.E. Hoglund, “Gasoline prices: cyclical trends and market developments,” Beyond the Numbers, BLS, May 2015. (pdf) EIA, “Petroleum and Other Liquids: Retail Prices all grades and formulations, August 2015.  Department of Labor, “Minimum Wage Mythbusters.”  CNN, “Minimum wage since 1938,” interactive graphic.  “Meet the New Recession Cycle,” Zero Hedge, April 4, 2015.

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Filed under Economy, financial regulation, income inequality, Minimum Wage, Nevada politics, Politics