Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen with the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Don't be mislead by the poor data, the US economy is still in rude health

While current storms will weigh upon February’s statistics, Q2 growth could now hit 4 per cent and US rates could move significantly higher along the curve.

Economists have been tearing their hair out trying to deconstruct the recent string of negative data surprises, which have undermined confidence in growth, to eliminate the weather effect. The first significant tainted release in this series was probably the ostensibly weak employment report for December, which we received on 10 January. The consensus had been for a 197,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, but the data showed only 74,000. Weekly earnings and hours worked also ticked down and failed to match expectations, and the headline unemployment rate apparently only fell due to a further fall in the participation rate to a new low for the cycle of 62.8.

Further disappointments followed for building permits and pending home sales, the Manufacturing ISM survey, and vehicle sales. Finally the icing on the cake was the January employment report, released on 7 February. As in the previous month, non-farm payroll growth disappointed, at 113,000, as against a consensus for 180,000. However, perhaps we have seen the first signs of Spring, as the household survey revealed a contrasting picture, with a 638,000 increase in employment, an increase in hourly earnings, a fall in the broader, U6, measure of unemployment to 12.7 per cent (the lowest since the Fall of 2008, just after the Lehman bankruptcy, when U6 was sky-rocketing). Last but not least, the participation rate ticked up to 63.0 per cent.

All of the above conspired to force the yield on 10-year US T-Notes down from just over 3.0 per cent at the turn of the year, to a low of 2.58 per cent on 3 February, as investors dashed for cover.

As we stand, the new Fed Chair Janet Yellen has made it clear that continuity will be the watch-word, and that she feels the output gap is still considerable, implying a huge swathe of avoidable and unnecessary human misery. In support of this view, she would point to the employment-to-population ratio, which has improved negligibly since the recession, when it fell through the floor, as a good indicator of huge slack in the labour market. However, New York Fed researchers Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy recently published a paper highlighting the potential for the employment-to-population ratio to mislead us, unless we take account of "baby-boomer" demographics:

The E/P ratio is a misleading indicator for the degree of the labor market recovery. Adjusting for changing demographics has an important impact on the picture that emerges about the degree of the labor market recovery. The actual E/P ratio suggests that the labor market has made relatively no progress since the end of the recession in recovering from the 4.1 percentage point decline in this measure. In contrast, the gap between the demographically adjusted E/P ratio using our normalization and the actual E/P ratio is a much smaller 0.7 percentage points.

In other words, permanent drop-outs from the labour force (retirees, for example) of course mean that the participation rate has fallen and therefore the fall in headline unemployment rates is "for real" and has the potential to lead to an inflation problem quite quickly. The last Fed meeting minutes highlighted that, "much of the downward trend in the labour force participation rate since the start of the recession … as the result of shifts in the demographic composition of the workforce and the retirement of older workers."

The US economy also faces much less fiscal drag this year, with the expected change in cyclically adjusted budget balance being +0.5 per cent in 2014, after +2.7 per cent last year.

Turning to the markets, they already seem to be correcting for the weather effect. Treasury yields actually rose last week, even in the face of several weak-ish data releases. Fed fund futures are still priced well to the dovish side of the FOMC’s December Summary of Economic Projections (SEP), and don’t forget the FOMC’s membership changed in January, becoming significantly more hawkish. Taking all of this into account, although the current storms may well weigh upon February’s statistics, Q2 growth could now hit 4 per cent and US rates could move significantly higher along the curve. Of course this may have dramatic effects upon the equity markets and on EM currencies.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.