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July 18, 2016
Lockhart Casts a Line into the Murky Waters of Uncertainty
Is uncertainty weighing down business investment? This recent article makes the case.
Uncertainty as an obstacle to business decision making and perhaps even a "propagation mechanism" for business cycles is an idea that that has been generating a lot of support in economic research in recent years. Our friend Nick Bloom has a nice summary of that work here.
Last week, the boss here at the Atlanta Fed gave the trout in the Snake River a break and made some observations on the economy to the Rocky Mountain Economic Summit, casting a line in the direction of economic uncertainties. Among his remarks, he noted that:
The minutes of the June FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting clearly pointed to uncertainty about employment momentum and the outcome of the vote in Britain as factors in the Committee's decision to keep policy unchanged. I supported that decision and gave weight to those two uncertainties in my thinking.
At the same time, I viewed both the implications of the June jobs report and the outcome of the Brexit vote as uncertainties with some resolution over a short time horizon. We've seen, now, that the vote outcome may be followed by a long tail of uncertainty of quite a different character.
But he followed that with something of a caution…
If uncertainty is a real causative factor in economic slowdowns, it needs to be better understood. Policymaking would be aided by better measurement tools. For example, it would help me as a policymaker if we had a firmer grip on the various channels through which uncertainty affects decision-making of economic actors.
I have been thinking about the different kinds of uncertainty we face. Often we policymakers grapple with uncertainty associated with discrete events. The passage of the event to a great extent resolves the uncertainty. The outcome of the Brexit referendum would be known by June 24. The interpretation of the May employment report would come clear, or clearer, with the arrival of the June employment report on July 8. I would contrast these examples of short-term, self-resolving uncertainty with long-term, persistent, chronic uncertainty such as that brought on by the Brexit referendum outcome.
As President Lockhart indicated in his speech, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta conducts business surveys that attempt to measure the uncertainties that businesses face. From July 4 through July 8, we had a survey in the field with a question on how the Brexit referendum was influencing business decisions.
We asked firms to indicate how the outcome of the Brexit vote affected their sales growth outlook. Respondents could select a range of sentiments from "much more certain" to "much more uncertain."
Responses came from 244 firms representing a broad range of sectors and firm sizes, with roughly one-third indicating their sales growth outlook was "somewhat" or "much" more uncertain as a result of the vote (see the chart). Those noting heightened uncertainty were not concentrated in any one sector or firm-size category but represented a rather diverse group.
As President Lockhart noted in his speech, "[w]e had a spirited internal discussion of whether one-third is a big number or not-so-big." Ultimately, we decided that uncovering how these firms planned to act in light of their elevated uncertainty was the important focus.
In an open-ended, follow-up question, we then asked those whose sales growth outlook was more uncertain how their plans might change. We found that the most prevalent changes in planning were a reduction in capital spending and hiring. Many firms mentioned these two topics in tandem, as this rather succinct quote illustrates: "Slower hiring and lower capital spending." Our survey data, then, provide some support for the idea that uncertainties associated with Brexit were, in fact, weighing on firm investment and labor decisions.
Elevated measures of financial market and economic policy uncertainty immediately after the Brexit vote have abated somewhat over subsequent days. Once the "waters clear," as our boss would say, perhaps this will be the case for firms as well.
June 23, 2015
Approaching the Promised Land? Yes and No
Last Friday, we released our June installment of the Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey. Among the questions we put to our panel of businesses was a quarterly question on slack, asking firms to consider how their current sales levels compare to what they would consider normal.
The good news is, on average, the gap between firms' current unit sales levels and what they would consider normal sales levels continues to close (see the chart).
By our measure, firm sales, in the aggregate, are 1.9 percentage points below normal, a bit better than when we polled them in March (when they were 2.1 percent below normal) and much improved from this time last year (3.7 percent below normal). For comparison, the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimate of slack on a real gross domestic product (GDP) basis was 2.6 percent in the first quarter (though this estimate will almost certainly be revised to something closer to 2.4 percent when the revised GDP estimates are reported later today). And if GDP growth this quarter comes in around 2.5 percent as economists generally expect, the CBO's GDP-based slack estimate will be 2.2 percent this quarter, just a shade larger than what our June survey data are saying.
Now, as we have emphasized frequently (for example, in macroblog posts in May 2015, February 2015, and June 2013), performance in the aggregate and performance within select firm groups can differ widely. For example, while small firms continue to have greater slack than larger firms, their pace of improvement has been much more rapid (see the table).
Likewise, some industries (such as transportation and finance) see current sales as better than normal. But others, like manufacturers, are currently reporting considerable slack—and findings from this group appear to show a marginal worsening in sales levels over the past 12 months.
Another item that caught our attention this month was the differing pace of narrowing in the sales gap among those firms with significant export exposure (greater than 20 percent of sales) relative to those with no direct export exposure. We connected these dots using responses to this month's special question, in which responding firms specified their share of customers by geographic area: local, regional (the Southeast, in our case), national, and international (see the table).
So things are still getting better for the economy overall, and the small firms in our panel have displayed particularly rapid improvement during the last year. But if you've got exposure to the "soft" export markets, as mentioned in the June 17 FOMC statement, you've likely experienced a slower pace of improvement.
May 18, 2015
Sales Flexing Muscle at More Firms
The news in this month's Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) report is that, in the aggregate, firms' unit sales levels continue to strengthen: Specifically, the survey question measures firms' perceptions of current unit sales levels relative to "normal times."
This month, 70 percent of firms indicated their sales levels are at or above what they consider normal. Last November, that share was 61 percent, and one year ago, it was only 54 percent. We typically report the aggregate results in a diffusion index (see the chart), which also shows the overall progression toward "normal times" (a value of 0).
But, typical of aggregate statistics, these results obscure the diversity of experience among sectors. Digging deeper, we found that most (but not all) of the sectors represented in our panel have shown further improvement in their sales performance relative to last November (see the chart).
Retailers and those in the real estate and rental leasing/construction sectors reported the most significant improvement since November, with retailers approaching what they consider normal sales levels. This news is likely to be most welcome to Dennis Lockhart, our boss here in Atlanta, who has put the performance of the consumer on his "must watch" list. Two industries—finance and insurance, and transportation and warehousing—reported above-normal sales levels in our recent survey.
Only the manufacturers in our panel indicated that their sales performance has deteriorated since November, and they are now reporting sales well below normal. Of course, this news shouldn't be terribly surprising given the recent softness in the manufacturing indexes from both the Institute for Supply Management and industrial production data. This information was also on the boss's watch list, as he made clear in his speech:
Well, judging from our May BIE report, manufacturers aren't seeing improvement quite yet.
The stronger dollar was likely reflected in a drag on net exports...[and] looking ahead, I expect net exports to be a modest drag on economic activity over much of the year.... It should be noted, however, that in recent weeks the dollar has stabilized and oil prices have begun to move up a little. These developments, if they stick, could dilute somewhat what would otherwise be drags on the economy in the near term. We shall see.
February 20, 2015
Business as Usual?
Each month, we ask a large panel of firms to compare their current sales with "normal times." In our February survey, the firms in our panel reported their sales were approaching normal. Indeed, on average, larger firms (those with 100 or more employees) tell us sales levels this month were right at normal. But smaller firms, although improving, are still lagging their larger counterparts (see the chart).
These qualitative assessments suggest a continuation of the trend we've seen in our quarterly quantitative data (these data are compiled at the end of each quarter). In December, our panel of firms reported sales levels about 2.7 percent below normal—virtually identical to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the output gap. Here, too, our survey data show that on average, sales of the larger firms in our panel were essentially back to normal, but smaller firms were still reporting ample slack (see the chart).
Our next quantitative assessment of slack in U.S. business is due for release on March 20.
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