Benn Steil


A graphical take on geoeconomic issues, with links to the news and expert commentary.

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Greece Hurtles Toward Its Fiscal Cliff

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker

The United States marches solemnly towards its fiscal cliff, awaiting only the command from the Goddess of Reason to halt. Unfortunately for Greece, that country plugged its ears back in March.

Like the United States, Greece made prior commitments on spending and taxation in order to bind itself to the mission of deficit reduction. Unlike the United States, Greece left itself little means to unbind itself. As shown in the graphic above, its massive debt restructuring in March only reduced its debt-to-GDP ratio from 170% to 150%, but in the process made further significant restructuring much more difficult. Read more »

The Fed Should Pledge to Stop Pledging for a While

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker
pledge to stop pledging

Back in February, Benn argued that the Fed’s three-year zero-rate pledge, combined with a 2% long-run inflation target, may have been a pledge too far, given the Fed’s poor forecasting record going back decades.  The Board of Governors’ and Reserve Banks’ first three-year forecasts in October 2007, for example, were wildly off the mark: actual 2010 GDP, unemployment, and inflation were all outside the range of the 17 forecasts.  Yet at its September meeting, the Fed’s Open Market Committee extended its zero-rate pledge into 2015, on the basis of its forecast that unemployment would still be significantly above their “longer run” expectation at that time—as shown in the figure above.  But last week’s September payrolls report revealed that the unemployment rate had dropped more than anticipated, to 7.8%, putting the 6-month trend line into 2015 well within the Fed’s comfort zone.  This implies that interest rates, by the Fed’s own reasoning, may well need to rise sooner.  We think it’s time that the Fed pledged to stop pledging for a while. Read more »

Is Bernanke Right on QE3 and the Mortgage Market?

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker
Mortgage Rates and QE3

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke defended QE3 at his September 13 press conference by arguing that it would lower mortgage rates and increase home prices.  Over 80% of U.S. household debt is mortgage debt, so the extent to which he is right could be of considerable consequence to the future path of economic recovery.  Read more »

Benchmarking the Fed’s Dual-Mandate Performance

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies
The Dual Mandate

The Fed has a dual mandate to pursue price stability and maximum employment.  How should these be defined?  In January, the Fed set itself a long-run inflation target of 2%, while in June the midpoint of Fed board members’ and Reserve Bank presidents’ long-run unemployment predictions was 5.6%.  Our figure above shows actual inflation and unemployment performance relative to these targets going back to 2002.  What stands out is the divergence that opens up, particularly on the unemployment front, after Lehman Brothers failed in September 2008.  The sum of the deviations reached its peak in July 2009, as shown in the small box in the upper left of the figure.  Though it has since declined fairly steadily, it is still well above zero – zero being a benchmark for fulfilling the combined mandate.  This suggests that the Fed’s doves should continue to hold the upper hand. Read more »

More Evidence That LIBOR Is Hazardous to Economic Health

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Central bankers necessarily spend a great deal of time studying economic and market data that they believe to be forward-looking indicators of the economy’s health.  One such is the so-called “LIBOR-OIS spread” – the spread between the London Interbank Offered Rate (the rate at which major banks can supposedly borrow from each other, unsecured by collateral, for three months) and the Overnight Indexed Swap rate Read more »

More Evidence That LIBOR Is Manipulated, and What It Means

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Barclays’ admission that it deliberately understated the interest rates at which it could borrow between September 2007 and May 2009 suggests grievous flaws in the widespread process of using LIBOR (the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate) as a benchmark off which to price commercial loans, mortgages, and other forms of lending.  Our figure above illustrates this by comparing LIBOR with so-called NYFR Read more »

Can Household Risk-Aversion Measures Predict Fed Policy?

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies
risk aversion

The so-called Taylor Rule in monetary policy suggests how the Federal Reserve should adjust interest rates based on movements in inflation and economic output.  Although the Fed has never explicitly followed such a rule, it described fairly well the path of interest rate policy under much of Alan Greenspan’s tenure as chairman. Read more »

Where Have All the Profits Gone? Karl Marx Could Have Told You

Labor and Dividend Income

Since 2009, labor’s share of income in the United States has plummeted while personal dividend income as a percentage of disposable income has soared. This is not surprising for the early stage of a recovery in which firms are earning more with less and the stock market has been buoyant. The divergent trends between the two over the last 30 years, however, is notable and important. The small upper-right figure shows that dividend income as a percentage of after-tax corporate profits leapt markedly and permanently in the early 1980s. This corresponds with a general upward trend in corporate profits as a percentage of gross domestic product since that time; a time in which labor’s share of income has fallen almost continuously. Dividend income, not surprisingly, accrues largely to the stock-owning wealthy, as the small bottom-right figure shows. The fuller picture is one of growing inequality; one for which the globalization of business is frequently fingered as a primary culprit. But globalization itself makes the data difficult to parse. When an American firm uses components provided by foreign firms they appear from the data to have no labor content.

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It’s Time to Euthanize Sovereign CDSs

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Imagine life insurance contracts that wouldn’t pay off if officials declared heart attacks to be “voluntary.” Welcome to the world of sovereign credit default swaps, or CDSs.  When the Greek debt deal was announced on October 27, the eurozone leadership insisted that the banks were taking a 50% write-down “voluntarily,” meaning that Greek CDS contracts would not be triggered.  This was done to protect official creditors like the ECB and IMF, to avoid rewarding speculators, and to prevent possible financial contagion.  In response, Greek CDS prices plunged 20 percentage points.  Policymakers didn’t seem to care, but they should.  Those who bought CDSs believing that they were prudently insuring their bond holdings now face unexpected losses.  Sovereign CDSs have lost so much credibility that the troubled investment bank Jefferies felt it necessary to state publicly that it was not using them.  This credibility loss has spread to other sovereign CDSs, as shown in the bottom part of the figure above: the correlation between PIIGS debt spreads and CDS prices has plunged, indicating that CDSs are no longer viewed as reliable sovereign credit risk insurance.  Using CDS prices as a measure of default risk is now like setting your watch to a defective clock.  Yet the market is unlikely to die owing to Basel III bank capital regulations, which still treat CDSs as meaningful offsets against certain types of sovereign credit exposures.  This gives banks a perverse incentive to hold them just to reduce their capital requirements.  Given the permanent political distortion that Europe has introduced into the sovereign CDS market, it would be best now if the market could simply be shuttered.

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Are Stocks Cheap?

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Weak economic data, a Washington debt standoff, a downgrade of U.S. federal debt, and rising European default fears helped send the S&P 500 stock index down 16% between July 22and August 6.  As the figure above shows, equity prices of late imply the worst earnings growth rate expectations in 25 years—such expectations even turned negative last week.  This dour outlook stems partly from renewed risk-aversion, which ironically redirected cash into downgraded U.S. debt, but it also reflects a sharp rise in concerns about where new profits will come from.  Operating margins and profits are near all-time highs, but revenues are still below their 2008 peak and real consumer spending has grown by only 2% over the past year.  Corporations currently have strong balance sheets and the lowest net debt-to-revenue ratio on record, but this is largely the result of cost-cutting which may have run its course.  In short, either stocks are very cheap or growth prospects very dim.

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