MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

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Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

TIME Economy

Global Markets Suffer After Ukraine Crash, Unrest Elsewhere

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange July 17, 2014. U.S. stocks fell sharply lower on Thursday. © Brendan McDermid / Reuters—REUTERS

Stock markets report losses around the world as investors take fright at the broader geopolitical implications of the MH17 tragedy

Markets across the world took a conspicuous dive on Thursday in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17’s catastrophic crash in Ukraine — an event that came toward the end of a week marked by political unrest across Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Boeing 777 crashed in a rural area controlled by pro-Russian insurgency forces, believed by Ukrainian authorities to have shot down the plane, killing all 298 people on board.

As governments mobilized to make sense of the tragedy, which a spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denounced as an unequivocal act of terrorism, equity and currency traders anxiously rushed to sell their shares, eyeing the crash as indicative of a broader geopolitical tumult that could threaten global economic stability.

“What happened with the plane today and things swirling around with what may have actually happened with the plane caused a bit of a sell-off,” J.J. Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade, told the Associated Press. “The geopolitical risk is always the first one that people look for because it’s the one that changes the fastest. The market always hates uncertainty.”

Things had been economically rocky in Russia on Thursday morning even prior to the incident, with new sanctions against the country being imposed by the U.S. and E.U. — a response to Vladimir Putin’s support for the very rebels believed to have downed the Malaysia Airlines flight. That knocked the MICEX, Moscow’s primary stock exchange, down 2.9% by the day’s end. The ruble was down 1.1% against the dollar.

Things were relatively secure elsewhere until news of the crash broke around 10:30 a.m. E.T., shortly after markets opened on Wall Street. Emerging headlines on the tragedy, compounded with reports of Israel launching a ground offensive against Hamas forces in Gaza, jump-started the panic. The New York Stock Exchange had fallen by more than 127 points by the time it closed on Thursday evening; the S&P 500 reported its largest one-day percentage drop since April; prices of gold and oil had risen globally.

Friday has so far proved grim for stock markets in Asia, with both the Hang Seng in Hong Kong and the Nikkei 225 reporting notable slides by mid-afternoon.

In Kuala Lumpur, the price of Malaysia Airlines stock has been on the decline — not only in the aftermath of Thursday’s incident but for the past several months after the disappearance of Flight 370 in March, which has placed a significant financial burden on the company.

TIME Economy

Surprise: The Economy isn’t As Bad As You Think

7 signs America has turned the corner

Nearly seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, the national mood remains troubled. Surveys find entrenched pessimism over the country’s economic outlook and overall trajectory. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 63% of respondents said the U.S. is on the wrong track. It’s not difficult to see why. Set aside the gridlock in Washington for a moment and appreciate the weakness of the economic recovery: Households whose finances were too weak to spend. Large numbers of unemployed workers who couldn’t do so either. Younger Americans who couldn’t afford their own homes. Banks that were too broken to lend. Yet nearly a year ago, I wrote an essay for TIME suggesting that the economy could surprise on the upside. That hypothesis looks even more valid today.

Despite the pessimistic mood, America is experiencing a profound comeback. Yes, too many Americans are out of work and have been for far too long. And yes, we have a huge amount of slack to make up. In fact, if the 2008 collapse had not happened, the U.S. GDP would be $1 trillion–or more than 5%–higher than it is today.

But in terms of the growth outlook, the news is good. Goldman Sachs and many private-sector forecasters project a 3.3% growth rate for the remainder of 2014. The first half of 2014 saw the best job-creation rate in 15 years. Total household wealth and private employment surpassed 2008 levels last year. Bank loans to businesses exceeded previous highs this year. And income growth will soon improve too. America is finally returning to where it was seven years ago.

As halting as the U.S. recovery has been, the economy is now leaner and more capable of healthy, sustained growth through 2016 and beyond. Our outlook shines compared with that of the rest of the industrialized world, as Europe and Japan are stagnant. The 2008 economic crisis and Great Recession forced widespread restructuring throughout the U.S. economy–not unlike a company gritting its teeth through a lifesaving bankruptcy. Manufacturing costs are down. The banking system has been recapitalized. The excess and abuse that defined the housing market are gone. And it’s all being turbocharged by an energy boom nobody saw coming.

It’s not just economic trends that are looking up: crime rates, teen pregnancy and carbon emissions are down; public-education outcomes are improving dramatically; inflation in health care costs is at a half-century low. That points to something I did not foresee last year: that the social health of America seems to be mending. Americans may still feel discontented, but winter is finally over.

AMERICANS ARE SPENDING LIKE THEY MEAN IT

The biggest piece of the U.S. economy, by far, is the consumer sector. It represents 70% of GDP in most years. But consumers suffered historic setbacks in 2008 and 2009. According to a Federal Reserve Board report, 13% of households experienced “substantial financial stress.” This compares with only 1% during the previous two recessions. And it is why consumer spending fell so sharply in 2009, as frightened households cut back.

It has taken years for total household finances to recover fully, but now they have. Total household net worth is now well above its 2007 peak, driven by the recovery in stock prices and home values. Household debt-to-income ratios are the lowest in more than 30 years. And the first half of 2014 has seen employment begin to take off.

Indeed, consumer spending is strengthening alongside consumer confidence, which is nearly back to prerecession levels. For all of 2014, consumer spending should grow around 3% as real disposable income rises and the savings rate moderates. With an average of 248,000 new jobs having been added in each of the past five months, the unemployment rate is probably on course to fall to 5% in 2016. Although part of the decline in the unemployment rate to date is due to stubbornly low labor-participation rates, the overall outlook for consumer spending, the engine of our economy, is healthy again.

HOUSING HAS COME BACK TO LIFE

A good recovery in the housing sector was inevitable because both the supply of viable housing and household-formation rates had dropped to very low levels. That combination finally triggered a snapback.

At first, it was housing prices that turned up. Over the past year, they rose in each of the 20 largest metropolitan areas. And since its low point in early 2012, the Case-Shiller Home Price Index has risen more than 25%. This revived the housing market and helped restore overall household balance nationwide.

Single-family and multifamily housing starts have also recovered strongly. They exceeded 1.5 million annually in the decade before the crisis but collapsed to less than 500,000 in its aftermath. Now they are over 1 million and should go higher. Most forecasts envision a rate of roughly 1.2 million next year, continuing to rise to 1.6 million over the next few years. Keep in mind that new housing construction and renovations drive a wide range of manufacturing and services output, from appliances to trucking. Indeed, private residential investment has jumped by more than 27% since 2012.

Finally, economic hardship forced record numbers of grown kids to stay with their parents, depressing household formation to rates far below normal. But this too is improving. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that formation rates will double to 1.2 million annually as kids finally move out and the adult population increases.

AMERICAN-MADE MAKES SENSE AGAIN

A new factor to add since my previous analysis is manufacturing. A near consensus that this sector was in permanent decline has existed for many years. It was accentuated by the loss of nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010 and by the sense that much lower wages in Asia made continued offshoring inevitable.

But recently the greater role of technology in manufacturing and rising wages in Asia have given our manufacturing sector some life. A recent Brookings Institution report on manufacturing stresses how robotics, 3-D printing and the relentless advance of digital technology are transforming big parts of U.S. manufacturing. Moreover, as China’s GDP has continued to grow, its wages have risen considerably, narrowing the cost differential with the U.S. In many industries, the cost-to-produce difference is now down to 15%.

That explains why certain U.S. producers are reversing themselves and committing to manufacturing goods at home. Walmart announced that it would sell $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10 years, and the Boston Consulting Group recently estimated that up to 30% of offshore production would return. Although manufacturing has added 668,000 jobs since the 2010 nadir, continued automation will prevent this sector from being a major contributor of new jobs in the future. But the role of manufacturing in our GDP is stable, and the sense that other sectors of the economy would need to compensate for continued declines in manufacturing is out of date.

ENERGY PRODUCTION IS BOOMING

If ever there was proof of the difficulty of forecasting, it is the stunning recovery in our oil-and-gas production. Virtually no one from ExxonMobil on down saw this coming. Nor the way in which made-in-the-USA technology made it happen. The idea that America, whose oil production has been declining for the past 40 years, is now on track to become the world’s biggest producer by 2015 is still hard to grasp. As is the notion that after similar declines in production of natural gas, we now have a 100-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects total U.S. crude-oil production to increase more than 25% to 9.3 million barrels per day by 2015, which would mark the highest level since 1972. Daily natural gas production, which grew by 5% over the past year, is expected to continue climbing, with the U.S. becoming a net exporter by 2018.

This is a plus for growth, for household budgets and consumption, for climate protection and for America’s national security. Given our huge new supplies, natural gas is cheaper here–around $4.70 per 1,000 cu. ft.–than anywhere else. This means lower utility bills across the country. It also means that gas is being substituted rapidly for the dirtiest fuel, coal, to produce electricity. And that both America’s stake in the unstable Persian Gulf and our borrowing from China are diminished as we import less energy. The rise, fall and rise of the American oil-and-gas sector is probably, together with development of the Internet, the biggest economic breakthrough in this country in 50 years.

OUR ENVIRONMENT IS GETTING HEALTHIER

Although there remains a heated political debate over climate change and its causes, few people, regardless of their views on that, actually favor more carbon emissions. But there is also an unexpected positive trend. Carbon emissions in the U.S. actually have been falling. Today they are down nearly 10% from 2005 levels. It is possible that the U.S. will meet its goal of cutting emissions by 2020 to 17% below that 2005 baseline.

Technology and regulation explain this surprising trend. Take the auto industry. At one level, Washington upped fuel-efficiency requirements to a stiff fleetwide average of 54.5 m.p.g. by model year 2025. At another, galloping advances in engine technology and vehicle weight are enabling automakers to improve their mileage more quickly than anyone forecast. And the EPA has just mandated sharp reductions in emissions from coal-fired plants.

The U.S. has been among the worst offenders in emissions. To have any credibility in leading global negotiations on these issues, we need to lead the way.

AMERICAN SCHOOLS ARE WORKING SMARTER

How often have you read that America’s education system, especially public education, is a failure? It has a long way to go, but it has started to improve. This is crucial because differentials in lifetime earnings by level of education are widening. Driven by globalization and technology, labor markets are demanding higher and higher levels of skills. Therefore, to improve incomes for younger Americans, we must get better educational outcomes.

For 25 years, those outcomes were stagnant. High school graduation rates had fallen to 60% or lower in many large cities and rural areas. And just over half of first-year college students would graduate within six years. These are poor results by the standards of advanced countries.

But beginning in 2006, the decline began to reverse. High school completion rates are now up almost 10 points, crossing 80% for the first time.

According to a recent report from Johns Hopkins University, the turnaround reflects countless grassroots efforts toward public-school reform. Instigated by parents, business groups, nonprofits, state and local governments and, in some areas, teacher unions, these efforts have concentrated on teacher training and evaluation, better collection and use of data in supporting students, improved curriculum materials and the restructuring or closing of underperforming schools, sometimes called dropout factories.

It is crucial that these reforms continue because if they do, that same Johns Hopkins study predicts that U.S. high schools will reach a 90% completion rate by 2020. That would be a huge achievement. Over the past decade, college-completion rates also have strengthened, nearing 60%. True, the college readiness of high school graduates has not improved in line with graduation rates. But recent advances that tie online education to different approaches in the classroom may soon improve this too.

SOCIAL TRENDS ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

America has seen a drop in crime rates that in earlier years would have been universally viewed as impossible. The overall crime rate has plummeted by 45% since peaking in 1991 and by 13% just since 2007–counterintuitively continuing to drop through the recession and sharp spike in unemployment.

Since 1991, according to FBI data, the number of violent crimes has fallen 36% nationally and 64% in the nation’s largest cities. And in New York and Los Angeles, our two largest cities, it has fallen even further. Property crime has also become increasingly rare. Incredibly, in New York City, car thefts have plunged 94% in the past two decades.

How is this possible? In the mid-1990s, few saw this decline coming, and many warned that crime would surge once again as teens of that era grew into young adults. Today, criminologists still differ on what has caused the nationwide turnaround in crime rates and why those dire predictions never came to pass. But crime-fighting technology, better policing, aging societies, growing urban populations and declining usage of hard drugs are widely cited.

For many Americans, the drop in crime has resulted not only in a much higher quality of life but in a reduced economic burden as well. Safer cities generally mean stronger urban economies.

In the same category of big surprises, teen-pregnancy rates have fallen to their lowest level in more than 30 years, according to the widely respected Guttmacher Institute. They have declined 51% from their 1990 peak, based on the latest available data, and the teenage birthrate is down 43% from that year’s level. Today, fewer teens are becoming pregnant and becoming mothers than at any point since reliable data has been collected by the National Center for Health Statistics. This is also true for women in the 20-to-24 age group. To put it mildly, there were very few predictions to this effect a generation ago.

In addition, overall birthrates in the U.S. have turned up for the first time since 2007–including for children born to women with a college education–to just shy of 4 million.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

Our country’s biggest challenge now is the plight of lower-income Americans, who are under severe and sustained economic pressure. Today, America resembles a tale of two cities. Those who own homes or stocks have benefited from the recovery in these asset classes and are moving up again. But 40% of our working-age families earn $40,000 a year or less. Generally they live within 250% of the official poverty level, which is the eligibility threshold for food stamps. Indeed, judging from current trends, half of today’s 20-year-olds will receive food stamps during their adult lives. More broadly, median household income is still 8% below the precrisis level, and those who have not completed college are seeing declines in anticipated lifetime earnings compared with their peers with college degrees.

This is our primary economic challenge. If a third of our population has little purchasing power, it will be hard to achieve the rate of long-term growth we want. We need to improve the work skills of this group, strengthen the social safety net and increase the number of young Americans receiving a full college education.

Although doing more to relieve the financial burdens of working Americans is good economics, it is also, and perhaps more important, a matter of values. For much of the 20th century we strove, with much success, to build a fairer and more inclusive society. But today, too many working families are living paycheck to paycheck or even in outright poverty, while the toeholds to economic stability become fewer and farther between.

With our economy’s near- and medium-term economic outlook strong, now is the time to remove the barriers that are keeping hardworking Americans walking a far too thin financial line.

Altman, who served as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration, is the founder and executive chairman of Evercore Partners

TIME Economy

Murdoch’s Bid for Time Warner May Signal a Coming Crash

The media mogul has a habit of buying at the top of the market.

What do Rupert Murdoch’s $80 billion bid for Time Warner and Fed chair Janet Yellen’s mid-year report to Congress yesterday have in common? Both may well be signals of a market top.

Let’s start with the news Wednesday: Murdoch has a track record of making bids that mark the end of bull runs. As Peter Atwater, a behavioral economist who runs the firm Financial Insyghts, pointed out to me, Murdoch’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Chris Craft in 2000, his $5.6 billion acquisition of Dow Jones in 2007, and his $12 billion bid for the portion of BSkyB that he didn’t own back in 2011 all coincided with market peaks. Shortly after all these deals, stocks fell.

Likewise, Janet Yellen’s speech Tuesday on the state of the U.S. economy, in which she said she thought technology stocks (including biotech and social media in particular) were overvalued, was an important signal that valuations are stretched, and we may be in for a fall. Yellen tends to worry less about bubbles than some other economists, so when she starts to fret — and especially when she says so publicly — that’s telling.

It’s no wonder that all this is happening now. With more than $4 trillion of Fed money sloshing around in the markets, and jobs numbers looking better, there’s a vigorous central banker debate going on about how soon to raise interest rates (which inevitably dampens market sentiment). Likewise, it’s worth noting that the last five major merger manias in financial history happened at the peak of markets, and ended with a big drop in equities. That happens not only because companies have a lot of money to play with at the top of a market, but also because they have in many cases exhausted growth strategies, and mergers are an easy way to get a further quick-hit boost in stocks (see my column on that topic here). Mergers are often presented as the beginning of a corporate growth streak — more often than not, they signal the end.

TIME Asia

China’s Economy Continues to Defy Gravity. That May Not Be a Good Thing

A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port,  part of the newly announced Shanghai Free Trade Zone, south of Shanghai
A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, on Sept. 26, 2013 Carlos Barria—Reuters

China announced better-than-expected growth over the second quarter. Despite optimistic official figures, there's plenty to worry about in the world's second largest economy

China announced its GDP figures for the second quarter on Wednesday and — surprise, surprise — they were better than expected. Growth clocked in at 7.5% — which just so happens to be the government’s official target. The statistics will likely give a boost to sentiment globally. Investors have been worried that a slowing China would hit the entire world economy. More buoyant Chinese growth will probably calm those jitters.

Yet China is also something of a puzzle. Somehow the economy continues to power through all sorts of issues that should be slowing it down. The all-important property sector, which accounts for some 16% of its GDP, is undergoing a major downturn. For most of the year, the government has tried to control dangerous levels of debt in the economy and clamp down on “shadow banking,” which encompasses alternative financial networks and lending practices. Tighter credit should translate into slower growth. Beijing is also supposedly on a mission to streamline bloated industries like steel by eliminating excess capacity, which, though healthy for the future prospects of the economy, should also act as a drag on short-term growth. So should President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign, which in theory should be disrupting policymaking and creating uncertainty.

So how is China defying gravity once again? There is always the perennial suspicion that the numbers are inflated. Capital Economics looks at statistics that aren’t as easily manipulated as GDP, such as freight shipments and electricity output, to gauge the economy’s performance, and figures GDP has probably been expanding more like 6% in recent quarters. But economists are crediting the latest growth rate to government stimulus, carefully targeted at infrastructure and public housing, both investments the economy still needs.

This is a smart move. The Chinese government has ample ability to keep growth humming while it attempts to implement more substantial reforms. However, the reliance on stimulus also raises doubts about what might be ahead. Some economists see growth “bottoming out” and a revival continuing through the rest of the year. Others believe continued headwinds, especially the struggles of the property sector, are too strong for the government to counter — without even greater largesse. That might be on its way. New loans made in June were the highest in five years, according to research from Barclays, which suggests that the government is loosening up credit once again.

That begs the most important question facing China’s economy right now: Will Beijing sacrifice reform for growth? So far, China’s leaders have controlled their usual urge to pump up growth rates, an indication they realize the dangers lurking in the economy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, debt in China has risen to dizzying heights. A recent report from Standard & Poor’s calculated that China’s corporate sector has more debt outstanding than any other in the world. Combined with tremendous excess capacity, a risky increase in shadow banking and signs of a property bubble, the Chinese economy is rampant with problems that threaten its future. Some economists believe Beijing needs to address these ills and resist efforts to use credit and other stimulus to rev up growth — or else face a possible financial crisis.

Yet the reforms necessary to fix these problems are coming very slowly. Beijing has pledged to undertake a bold slate of measures — to liberalize interest rates and other prices, improve the performance of bloated state-owned enterprises, open protected markets to competition, strengthen the financial sector and allow private enterprise greater sway in the economy. All of these steps, if implemented, would make the Chinese economy healthier and more advanced. But so far, only the most minor of experiments have started, such as the approval of a handful of small private banks and the opening of a free-trade zone in Shanghai to tinker with more open capital flows. Even more, once the greater reforms fall into place (if they ever do), it could take years before they have an impact on the economy.

There are two ways of looking at what’s going on. One is that China’s policymakers are wisely going slow on potentially painful reforms while the economy works out some of its messiest problems in an environment of relatively stable growth. The other, less optimistic, view is that the problems rotting away at the Chinese economy are so complex and entrenched that policymakers are prioritizing continuing growth over tough reforms. In that scenario, China’s broken-down growth model will be kept alive with debt and government spending, while the fundamental change necessary to take China to the next level stalls.

I continue to be afraid of the latter. And with China the world’s second largest economy, we all should be too.

TIME Economy

Here’s Why Americans Are Having a Lot Less Fun This Summer

Americans Spending Less on Fun Things
Shoppers walk through Herald Square, outside a New York City Macy's in May. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Less money is being budgeted to discretionary purchases as food and fuel prices rise

A sizable chunk of Americans are cutting spending on fun activities this summer, while nearly half have upped their spending on household essentials, a new survey reports.

The biggest changes are in the kitchen, with a net percentage of 49% of Americans spending more on groceries, while 12% are cutting dollars put to dining out, according to the first Gallup poll to retroactively survey U.S. spending habits, comparing those of June this year and last year. Additionally, spending on gas, utilities and healthcare rose, while spending on travel, electronics and clothes dipped.

Americans Spending Less on Fun
Gallup

The findings arrive amidst rising prices of essential living items that are cannibalizing money that American families had previously budgeted to luxury or leisure activities, according to Gallup. Food prices, especially, have increased in recent months, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicting a 2.5 to 3.5% rise over 2013 levels. Gas prices are up too, with a 20 cent rise from last year’s summer. And already the bulk of Americans have felt the effects: between traveling and eating, this year’s Fourth of July was deemed the most expensive yet.

“These results paint a picture of consumers straining against rising prices on daily essentials to afford summer travel, dining out, and discretionary household purchases — the kinds of purchases that ordinarily keep an economy humming,” the Gallup report stated.

But Gallup data suggest that Americans aren’t willing to give up their fun altogether, even if that means they’re purchasing accommodations less lavish than before. Despite spending less money on traveling, for example, Americans are actually traveling more, made possible by increasing amounts of people deciding to travel somewhere close to home. Most Americans will travel by car this summer, with 69% planning to take a trip this summer, compared to 52% in 2009 during the recession.

Still, the real damage of Americans having less fun isn’t necessarily spiritual: it’s economic.

“Because consumer spending is the lifeblood of a healthy economy, these findings suggest that discretionary spending still has a way to go before it will fuel the kind of economic growth Americans have been hoping for,” the report said.

TIME Economy

Wall Street’s Values Are Strangling American Business

When finance calls the shots, we all lose

It’s widely known that more than half of all corporate mergers and acquisitions end in failure. Like many marriages, they are often fraught with irreconcilable cultural and financial differences. Yet M&A activity was up sharply in 2013 and reached pre-recession levels this year. So why do companies keep at it? Because it’s an easy way to make a quick buck and please Wall Street. Increasingly, business is serving markets rather than markets serving business, as they were originally meant to do in our capitalist system.

For a particularly stark example, consider American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s recent bid to buy British drugmaker AstraZeneca. The deal made little strategic sense and would probably have destroyed thousands of jobs as well as slowed research at both companies. (Public outcry to that effect eventually helped scuttle the plan.) But it would have allowed Pfizer to shift its domicile to Britain, where companies pay less tax. That, in turn, would have boosted share prices in the short term, enriching the executives paid in stock and the bankers, lawyers and other financial intermediaries who stood to gain about half a billion dollars or so in fees from the deal.

Pfizer isn’t alone. Plenty of firms engage in such tax wizardry. This kind of short-term thinking is starting to dominate executive suites. Besides tax avoidance, Wall Street’s marching orders to corporate America include dividend payments and share buybacks, which sap long-term growth plans. It also demands ever more globalized supply chains, which make balance sheets look better by cutting costs but add complexity and risk. All of this hurts longer-term, more sustainable job and value creation. As a recent article on the topic by academic Gautam Mukunda in the Harvard Business Review noted, “The financial sector’s influence on management has become so powerful that a recent survey of chief financial officers showed that 78% would give up economic value and 55% would cancel a project with a positive net present value–that is, willingly harm their companies–to meet Wall Street’s targets and fulfill its desire for ‘smooth’ earnings.”

Some of this can be blamed on the sheer size of the financial sector. Many thought that the economic crisis and Great Recession would weaken the power of markets. In fact, it only strengthened finance’s grip on the economy. The largest banks are bigger than they were before the recession, while finance as a percentage of the economy is about the same size. Overall, the industry earns 30% of all corporate profit while creating just 6% of the country’s jobs. And financial institutions are still doing plenty of tricky things with our money. Legendary investor Warren Buffett recently told me he’s steering well clear of exposure to commercial securities like the complex derivatives being sliced and diced by major banks. He expects these “weapons of mass destruction” to cause problems for our economy again at some point.

There’s a less obvious but equally important way in which Wall Street distorts the economy: by defining “shareholder value” as short-term returns. If a CEO misses quarterly earnings by even a few cents per share, activist investors will push for that CEO to be fired. Yet the kinds of challenges companies face today–how to shift to entirely new digital business models, where to put operations when political risk is on the rise, how to anticipate the future costs of health, pensions and energy–are not quarterly problems. They are issues that will take years, if not decades, to resolve. Unfortunately, in a world in which the average holding period for a stock is about seven months, down from seven years four decades ago, CEOs grasp for the lowest-hanging fruit. They label tax-avoidance schemes as “strategic” and cut research and development in favor of sending those funds to investors in the form of share buybacks.

All of this will put American firms at a distinct disadvantage against global competitors with long-term mind-sets. McKinsey Global Institute data shows that between now and 2025, 7 out of 10 of the largest global firms are likely to come from emerging markets, and most will be family-owned businesses not beholden to the markets. Of course, there’s plenty we could do policy-wise to force companies and markets to think longer term–from corporate tax reform to bans on high-speed trading to shifts in corporate compensation. But just as Wall Street has captured corporate America, so has it captured Washington. Few mainstream politicians on either side of the aisle have much interest in fixing things, since they get so much of their financial backing from the Street. Unfortunately for them, the fringes of their parties–and voters–do care.

TIME Economy

Wall Street Payouts Over Mortgage Crisis Top $100 Billion

Citibank To Cut 11,000 Jobs
A 'Citi' sign is displayed near Citibank headquarters in Manhattan on December 5, 2012 in New York City. Mario Tama—Getty Images

But U.S. assets lost $2.7 trillion in value from 2007 to 2010

Citigroup is reportedly closing in on a settlement deal that could cost the bank roughly $7 billion for its alleged involvement in the mortgage crisis.

The sum took Wall Street by surprise, the Wall Street Journal reports. Analysts predicted a settlement of $2 billion, perhaps $5 billion, but nowhere near the Department of Justice’s original request for $10 billion. That was approaching JPMorgan Chase’s record payout of $13 billion, and Citigroup argued it had sold far fewer mortgage-backed securities, so it should pay a commensurately smaller price.

Maybe so, but the Justice Department had momentum on its side. Banks have recently been falling like dominoes before its demands.

From 2010 to 2013, the nation’s six largest banks paid a total of $85.7 billion in settlement fees for their involvement in the mortgage crisis, according to SNL Financial. Add in two more whopping settlements in 2014, plus Citigroup’s impending deal, and the legal bill tops $100 billion. Citigroup’s tab would put it roughly in the middle of the past three years of legal shellackings.

Settlements
Source: SNL Financial, TIME

This partly reflects a more aggressive push by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to hold big banks accountable for the housing crisis, even as critics ask how it is that no bankers have successfully been prosecuted since the collapse. Holder himself once said that prosecution of a big bank might be “difficult,” given the complexity of their trades (a statement he later recanted).

But prosecution remains purely theoretical so long as Citigroup, like every other big bank before it, hops on the settlement bandwagon. After all, a lawsuit would have posed a public relations nightmare for the banks. No bank wants to be seen digging in its heels over sums that are positively dwarfed by the losses that mortgage-backed securities unleashed on the larger economy. The IMF estimates that U.S. assets lost $2.7 trillion in value from 2007 to 2010. That’s 28 times what big banks have subsequently paid in settlements.

Untitled
Sources: IMF, SNL Financial, TIME

No wonder, then, that Citigroup is expected to wrap up its deal with regulators as early as next week.

MONEY Economy

4 Takeaways from the Fed’s Big Meeting

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen arrives for a news conference at the Federal Reserve in Washington
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen Susan Walsh—AP

This afternoon, the Federal Reserve released minutes from its mid-June meeting, providing a slightly more detailed picture of what chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues are thinking about the future of interest rates and monetary policy.

The June meeting itself had been a big shrug: The economy was getting better but not quickly enough to justify raising short-term interest rates; the Fed also said it would continue slowly tapering “quantitative easing,” the massive program of bond buying that’s meant to ease credit and stoke economic growth.

But here are three new things we’ve learned from the minutes.

1) Look for “quantitative easing” to end in October

We already kind of knew this, since the Fed has been reducing its purchases as a steady rate, but the minutes fill in a detail:

Some committee members had been asked by members of the public whether, if tapering in the pace of purchases continues as expected, the final reduction would come in a single $15 billion per month reduction or in a $10 billion reduction followed by a $5 billion reduction. Most participants viewed this as a technical issue with no substantive macroeconomic consequences…

But:

… participants generally agreed … it would be appropriate to complete asset purchases with a $15 billion reduction in the pace of purchases in order to avoid having the small, remaining level of purchases receive undue focus among investors. If the economy progresses about as the Committee expects, warranting reductions in the pace of purchases at each upcoming meeting, this final reduction would occur following the October meeting.

Bear in mind that this just means the Fed will stop buying bonds. It will still own over $4 trillion worth of them.

2) The Fed is divided about how to read inflation data

In a press conference after the meeting, Yellen said that although inflation seemed to be picking up a bit, the numbers were too “noisy” to conclude that inflation would go above the Fed’s 2% target for long.

The minutes of the meeting suggest that the other Fed governors and regional Fed presidents are divided on this. Some are worried that inflation is still far too low, indicating an economy that’s still too slack. And it looks like the recent strong jobs numbers, released after the meeting, which brought unemployment down to 6.1%, won’t change the minds of the inflation doves.

Some participants expressed concern about the persistence of below-trend inflation, and a couple of them suggested that the Committee may need to allow the unemployment rate to move below its longer-run normal level for a time in order keep inflation expectations anchored and return inflation to its 2 percent target, though one participant emphasized the risks of doing so.

But there’s still a vocal hawk team. Although price increases are very low, their main concern is that the Fed won’t be able to react fast enough when the economy turns.

… other participants expressed concern that economic growth over the medium run might be faster than currently expected or that the rate of growth of potential output might be lower than currently expected, calling for a more rapid move to begin raising the federal funds rate in order to avoid significantly overshooting the Committee’s unemployment and inflation objectives.

3) The Fed is worried that it’s being taken for granted.

…participants also discussed whether some recent trends in financial markets might suggest that investors were not appropriately taking account of risks in their investment decisions… [and] not factoring in sufficient uncertainty about the path of the economy and monetary policy.

What’s the problem with that? There’s always concern that easy policy will stoke an asset bubble. But Yellen has said that while she’s keeping this on her radar, it’s not a major concern yet. One good reason to think so: The housing market, the source of the really dangerous bubbles, is hardly frothy.

Despite attractive mortgage rates, housing demand was seen as being damped by such factors as restrictive credit conditions, particularly for households with low credit scores; high down payments; or low demand among younger homebuyers, due in part to the burden of student loan debt.

4) The labor market still looks weaker than it should be.

Although unemployment is down, some participants in the Fed meeting feel that many workers are still struggling to find work—they note that many workers have dropped out of the labor force altogether—and those with jobs still aren’t in a strong position to demand higher wages.

TIME Economy

Stocks Fall for a Second Day; Nasdaq Slumps

(NEW YORK) — U.S. stocks declined in afternoon trading Tuesday as investors waited for corporate earnings reports due out this week. Technology and small companies fell sharply. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped below 17,000 from the open after crossing that threshold last week on news that employers have been hiring more.

KEEPING SCORE: The Dow fell 88 points, or 0.5 percent, to 16,935 as of 2:21 p.m. Eastern time. The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 10 points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,967.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite fell 50 points to 4,401, a loss of 1.1 percent. It hasn’t fallen that much in two months. Pandora Media, a music streaming service, fell 6 percent. Two other tech stars, Facebook and Netflix, fell more than 3 percent each.

BUY SAFETY, SELL RISK: Utilities rose 0.7 percent, the only sector of the 10 in the S&P 500 that rose. Telecommunications stocks fell the most, 1.3 percent. The Russell 2000, which tracks small-company stocks, fell 12 points, or 1 percent, to 1,174.

WATCH THOSE EARNINGS: With major stock indexes near record highs, investors will be scrutinizing second-quarter earnings reports for evidence the run-ups have been justified.

Financial analysts expect earnings per share for the S&P 500 rose 6.6 percent from a year earlier, according to S&P Capital IQ, a research firm. That is about double the increase in the first quarter. They expect earnings growth to accelerate for the rest of the year, topping 11 percent in the fourth quarter.

The earnings reporting season unofficially kicks off after the close of U.S. stock markets Tuesday when aluminum producer Alcoa reports its results. Wells Fargo, the No. 1 home mortgage lender in the U.S., reports Friday.

BULL MARKET PETERING OUT? Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, doesn’t think so. But he’s not surprised investors are jittery and selling a bit. He notes that the S&P 500 has risen for 1,940 days since its 2009 low, the fourth longest bull market since World War II.

“The longer it gets out of line with historical patterns,” he says, “the closer we get to fizzling out.”

DEAL SWEETENER: Drugmaker AbbVie fell $1.60, or 2.8 percent, to $55.80 after news that it raised its offer to buy another drug company, Shire. The target, known for its rare-disease drugs, has rejected three AbbVie offers.

EUROPE: France’s CAC-40 fell 1.4 percent and Germany’s DAX fell 1.3 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped 1.2 percent.

BONDS AND OIL: U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.57 percent from 2.61 percent late Monday. In energy markets, U.S. crude for August delivery fell 45 cents to $103.09.

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