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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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May 27, 2020

COVID-19 Mortgage Relief—The Role of Income Support

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a large number of furloughs, layoffs, reductions in hours worked, and wage cuts. Anticipating that many homeowners would consequently have problems paying their monthly mortgage bill, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered all mortgage servicers of federally backed debt to provide forbearance to any homeowners affected by the crisis. In addition, bank regulators encouraged lenders to forbear and restructure mortgages for borrowers affected by the shutdown, actions that staved off an immediate wave of foreclosures. At the end of the forbearance window, borrowers will likely be offered a series of repayment schemes: starting with a period of catch-up payments, then moving to extended terms on their mortgage or possibly even rate reductions. However, if the borrower has not returned to work, paying for what is effectively a new mortgage obviously poses a challenge. Options such as creating a modified repayment plan, lowering the mortgage interest rate, or extending the term of the loan might not be enough for a borrower who has experienced a substantial income loss.

In 2009, researchers at the Boston Fed proposed an alternative policy of supplemental mortgage payment assistance targeted to underwater borrowers experiencing a significant reduction in disposable income due to factors such as employment loss or medical costs associated with illness. That 2009 research built on earlier Boston Fed research demonstrating that—during a previous housing market downturn—most underwater households continued to pay their mortgages unless they were hit with a further reduction in earnings or increase in expenses. The idea that mortgage default is caused by both a negative house price shock and a negative income/employment shock is known as the "double trigger" theory of default. However, the empirical evidence on the double trigger theory was limited. Underwater homeowners in areas with increased unemployment appeared to default more, but this was mostly an interesting correlation, not necessarily a causal relationship.

Since the Great Recession, considerable research (here, for example) has tried to identify the central role income shocks play in default. The econometric challenge is that shocks to income from changes in employment or wages tend to be capitalized into house prices. So a community experiencing the second trigger from widespread job loss, say, will likely also experience a drop in house prices, making it difficult to isolate the real cause of default. In a forthcoming paper we consider the unique sources of changes in employment and income arising from the hydraulic fracking boom in Pennsylvania in the late 2000s to isolate the second trigger from the first.

Fracking involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and potentially toxic chemicals underground at great pressure to break shale formations and release the trapped natural gas. The fracking process also involves piercing aquifers, storing and treating large quantities of contaminated water, and employing heavy equipment. Some evidence shows that these real or perceived negative features lower the value of homes near fracking wells. At the same time, the shale boom increased demand for middle- and low-skilled workers and generated significant royalty payments to many property owners.

Observing the performance of mortgages that originated before fracking began allows us to treat the resulting shale boom as an experiment where household incomes were sustained (or increased) even as housing prices were flat or declining. Using geological information to predict the location of fracking activity, we find that fracking wells significantly raised total household income, from both wages and royalties, and the wells appear to have increased employment in fracking-related industries. At the same time, fracking does not appear to have raised house prices or made it less likely that a household has negative equity. However, fracking does significantly reduce the probability that a mortgage becomes seriously delinquent (that is, when a borrower misses more than a few payments).

In addition, when we use only geology to predict the location of fracking wells, we get a much larger decline in mortgage delinquency, suggesting that more vulnerable communities were quicker to embrace fracking. Finally, the ameliorative effects of fracking were concentrated among borrowers who are likely to be underwater on their mortgages (the first trigger), consistent with the double trigger hypothesis, since the theory predicts that borrowers with positive equity are unlikely to default in the first place.

Our results suggest that an effective strategy for preventing a foreclosure crisis in the current situation is direct support of household income. Indeed, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (commonly known as the CARES Act) contains several income transfers to help sustain household budgets, including expanded unemployment insurance, direct cash payments to most households, and loans to small firms that are forgivable on the condition that they sustain employment through the shutdown. It is our view that these programs are not simply helping to sustain families during the crisis, but they're also limiting disruption to the housing market. Depending on how the crisis evolves in the coming months, further income support for affected households may forestall the need for less efficacious interventions to aid distressed borrowers.

May 18, 2020

A Couple of Insights from the April Current Population Survey

The latest reading of the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker indicates that wage growth is slowing. It came in at 3.3 percent for April, down from 3.5 percent in March and 3.7 percent in February. This slowing primarily reflects the relatively large decline in the employment of those who typically experience the fastest wage growth: young workers. In February, those aged 16–24 accounted for about 12 percent of employment. By April, that share had dropped to under 10 percent. This change has significant bearing on the Wage Growth Tracker because those aged 16–24 had median wage growth of around 7.8 percent on average over the last year, versus 3.6 percent for all workers. So their decreased share of employment has helped pull overall median wage growth lower (see here for more discussion).

Note that while the tracker reflects the compositional change in who is employed, it didn’t show a spike in wage growth suggested by the average hourly earnings data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Payroll Survey. This is because the average hourly earnings data are a snapshot of the average earnings of all workers, hence last year's average will include people who are not employed today (and vice versa). As a result, the spike in average earnings was for an awful reason: a lot of low-wage workers lost their jobs. In contrast, the tracker compares the wages of the fortunate people who were employed both today and a year earlier.

Another wage development to keep an eye on are wage freezes. During the Great Recession, there was a large and persistent increase in the fraction of workers who said their wage was unchanged from a year earlier. We will be examining the Wage Growth Tracker data for evidence of an increased incidence of wage freezes or even wage cuts. The fraction of people reporting no change in their wage has increased from 13.7 percent in February to 14.1 percent in April. In contrast, the cyclical low for this series was 12.7 percent in November of 2019.

The April data also revealed a sharp increase in the number of people who are employed but on unpaid absence from work for "other reasons." As described in this recent macroblog post, these are most likely people whose employers furloughed them. March saw an estimated 1.5 million such workers. In April, that number swelled to 6.2 million. If those people had been counted as unemployed instead of employed, the unemployment rate would have been 18.7 percent in April instead of the official number of 14.7 percent. Going forward, a gauge of the strength of the labor market recovery will be how many of these furloughed workers eventually return to work versus become unemployed—or even leave the labor force. Stay tuned.

John Robertson, a senior policy adviser in the Atlanta Fed's research department

May 15, 2020

Introducing the CFO Survey

For almost 25 years, the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook has provided policymakers, academics, and the public with an understanding of how financial executives view the economy and prospects for their business. Today, three partners—Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta—announce an enhanced iteration of this survey, now called theCFO Survey. Starting with the second-quarter data release on July 8, 2020, the CFO Survey will offer the same crucial information about the economic outlook and, through some methodological updates, an enhanced look at how U.S. companies perceive and react to the current economic environment.

This partnership comes at an opportune time. As the country faces considerable economic and political uncertainty, the on-the-ground information policymakers receive from businesses has never been more important. In the longer run, the information collected through the CFO Survey will help economists and researchers understand how firms reacted amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. It will therefore provide a key input into our understanding of the role that sentiment and uncertainty play in corporate decision-making processes.

What will change?

Much of the Duke survey will remain the same. One change is a discontinuation of the international portion. The CFO Survey will initially survey only U.S. firms, to fully establish the U.S. panel. (After we've reached our domestic panel-composition goals, we hope to eventually engage our global partners again.) Another change is that the sampling design has moved from a repeated cross-section to a panel-data format, meaning that the same pool of business leaders will participate each quarter. Finally, the team engaged in a thorough methodological review, and the survey questions will be streamlined and the survey process made more efficient for participants. More details on changes to existing questions will be available over the course of the next few weeks, and the first set of data generated using the updated questionnaire design will be available on July 8 on the new CFO Survey website: www.cfosurvey.org.

What will stay the same?

The survey will continue to track business sentiment over time and ask questions pertaining to business leaders' most pressing concerns, their expectations for their own firms' performance, and their expectations for the performance of the U.S. economy over the year ahead. Because Duke has conducted this survey since 1996, the rich historical data will allow for contextual insights on key indicators including revenue, capital expenditures, and employment as well as illuminating trends and shifts in business sentiment. The headline CFO Optimism Index will remain unchanged—that index measures business leaders' optimism about the U.S. economy and their own firm's financial prospects.

The objectives of the survey will not change, nor will the target participants. In addition to chief financial officers, the CFO Survey panel includes treasurers, vice presidents, and directors of finance, owner-operators, accountants, controllers, and others with financial decision-making roles in their organizations. To get the broadest view possible, the CFO Survey panel includes representatives from firms that range in size from owner-operators to Fortune 500 companies and covers all major industries. Finally, the survey will remain quarterly, and aggregated survey results and analysis will be publicly available via the new CFO Survey website.

We are excited to continue to provide this valuable complement to the array of existing data available to policymakers, business decision-makers, academic researchers, and the public. For more information and for the new quarterly results, check www.cfosurvey.org on July 8, 2020. Of course, we'll also alert you here when the time comes!

John Graham, the D. Richard Mead Jr. Family Professor of Finance at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business,

Brent Meyer, a policy adviser and economist in the Atlanta Fed's Research Department,

Nicholas Parker, the Atlanta Fed's director of surveys, and

Sonya Ravindranath Waddell, a vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

 

June 24, 2019

Mapping the Financial Frontier at the Financial Markets Conference

The Atlanta Fed recently hosted its 24th annual Financial Markets Conference, whose theme was Mapping the Financial Frontier: What Does the Next Decade Hold? The conference addressed a variety of issues pertinent to the future of the financial system. Among the sessions touching on macroeconomics was a keynote speech on corporate debt by Federal Reserve Board chair Jerome Powell and another on revitalizing America by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Simon Johnson. The conference also included a panel discussion of the Fed's plans for implementing monetary policy in the future. This macroblog post reviews these macroeconomic discussions. A companion Notes from the Vault post reviews conference sessions on blockchain technology, data privacy, and postcrisis developments in the markets for mortgage backed securities.

Chair Powell's thoughts on corporate debt levels
Chair Powell's keynote speech focused on the risks posed by increases in corporate debt levels. In his speech, titled "Business Debt and Our Dynamic Financial System" (which you can watch or read), Powell began by observing that business debt levels have increased by a variety of measures including the ratios of debt to gross domestic product as well as the debt to the book value of corporate assets. These higher debt ratios alone don't currently pose a problem because corporate profits are high and interest rates are low. Powell noted some reasons for concern, however, including the reduced average quality of investment-grade bonds, with more corporate debt concentrated in the "lowest rating—a phenomenon known as the 'triple-B cliff'".

Powell noted several differences between the recent increase in corporate debt and the increase in household debt prior to the 2007–09 crisis that offset these risks. These differences include a more moderate rate of increase in corporate debt, the lack of a feedback loop from debt levels to asset prices, reduced leverage in the banking system, and less liquidity risk.

Powell concluded his remarks by saying that although business debt does pose a risk of amplifying a future downturn, it does not appear to pose "notable risks to financial stability." Finally, he noted that the Fed is working toward a more thorough understand of the risks.

Simon Johnson on jumpstarting America
Simon Johnson started his keynote speech by discussing Amazon's search for a second headquarters city. The company received proposals from 238 cities across the country (and Canada). However, in the end, it selected two large metropolitan areas—New York and Washington, DC—that were already among the leaders in creating new tech jobs. Although many places around the country want growth in good jobs, he said the innovation economy is "drawn disproportionately to these few places."

Johnson's remedy for this disproportionate clustering is for the federal government to make a deliberate effort to encourage research and development in various technical areas at a number of research universities around the country. This proposal is based on his book with fellow MIT economist Jonathan Gruber. They argue that the proposal encourages "exactly what the U.S. did in the '40s, '50s, and '60s," which was to help the United States develop new technology to be used in World War II and the Cold War.

Johnson proposed that the funding for new technical projects be allocated through a nationwide competition that intentionally seeks to create new tech hubs. In making his case, Johnson observed that the view that "all the talent is just in six places is fundamentally wrong." Johnson said that he and his coauthor found 102 cities in 36 states that have a substantial proportion of college graduates and relatively low housing prices. Moreover, Johnson observed that existing tech centers' cost of living has become very high, and those cities have substantial political limits on their ability to sustain new population growth. If some of these 102 potential hubs received the funding to start research and provide capital to business, Johnson argued, overall growth in the United States could increase and be more evenly distributed.

Discussing the implementation of monetary policy
The backdrop for the session on monetary policy implementation was postcrisis developments in the Fed's approach to implementing monetary policy. As the Fed's emergency lending programs started to recede after the crisis, it started making large-scale investments in agency mortgage backed securities and U.S. Treasuries. This program, widely (though somewhat misleadingly) called "quantitative easing," or QE, pumped additional liquidity into securities markets and played a role in lowering longer-term interest rates. As economic conditions improved, the Fed first started raising short-term rates and then adopted a plan to shrink its balance sheet starting in 2018. However, earlier this year, the Fed announced plans to stop shrinking the balance sheet in September if the economy performs as it expected.

Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives, led the discussion of the Fed's plans, and a large fraction of that discussion addressed its plans for the size of the balance sheet. Kevin Warsh, former Federal Reserve governor and currently a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, provided some background information on the original rationale for QE, when many financial markets were still rather illiquid. However, he argued that those times were extraordinary and that "extraordinary tools are meant for extraordinary circumstances." He further expressed the concern that using QE at other times and for other reasons, such as in response to regulatory policy, would increase the risk of political involvement in monetary policy.

During the discussion, Chicago Fed president Charles Evans argued that QE is likely to remain a necessary part of the Fed's toolkit. He observed that slowing labor force growth, moderate productivity growth, and low inflation are likely to keep equilibrium short-term interest rates low. As a result, the Fed's ability to lower interest rates in a future recession is likely to remain constrained, meaning that balance sheet expansion will remain a necessary tool for economic stimulus.

Ethan Harris, head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, highlighted the potential stress the next downturn would place on the Fed. Harris observed that "other central banks have virtually no ammunition" to fight the next downturn, a reference to the negative policy rates and relatively larger balance sheets of some other major central banks. This dynamic prompted his question, "How is the Fed, on its own, going to fight the next crisis?"

The conference made clear the importance of the links between financial markets and the macroeconomy, and this blog post focused on just three of them. I encourage you to delve into the rest of the conference materials to see these and other important discussions.