Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

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Cliff talks: Relief in sight

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President and speaker draw near to a deficit deal

Dec 22nd 2012 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[By Greg Ip] THE housing market has turned, Europe’s crisis is apparently in remission and the Federal Reserve has pressed its monetary accelerator to the floor. Yet as 2012 draws to a close, America’s economy is still growing at an annualised rate of only around 1%. That figure has been depressed by fears of the self-inflicted “fiscal cliff”: a package of tax increases and spending cuts, worth 5% of GDP in a full year, that is set to kick in on January 2nd.

That constraint may also be finally lifting. Read the rest of this entry »


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December 18, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Back to black

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The Treasury squashes hopes that the agencies may ever be private again

Aug 25th 2012 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] SINCE 2008 Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, America’s two housing-finance giants, have been on life support, spared from insolvency by an intravenous drip of taxpayer cash. Lately, however, the companies have shown signs of life: earlier this month both reported their biggest profits since being forced into “conservatorship” four years ago (see chart).

That has sent a frisson through investors clutching preferred shares issued back when the companies minted money by using their quasi-governmental status to borrow cheap and buy or guarantee most residential mortgages in America. Between March and early August, many of Fannie’s old preferred shares, which now trade over the counter, jumped from around $1.50 to more than $3 (still a fraction of their $25 par value).

Several factors explain the turn in the companies’ fortunes. Read the rest of this entry »

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August 23, 2012 at 8:47 pm

America’s budget woes: Shift this cliff

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Politicians love postponing problems. America’s budget is a rare case where it makes sense to do so, briefly

Jun 16th 2012 | from the print edition

WHEN quarrelling politicians got into a deadlock in 2010 and again last year over how to close America’s gaping budget deficit, they picked the easy way out. They applied temporary patches that would expire after this November’s presidential and congressional elections.

For the political parties, this made sense. Then as now, they seemed incapable of compromise. Democrats were hostile to spending cuts; Republicans as fond of tax increases as they were of flag-burning. Rather than moderate their views, both sides preferred to fight it out during an election campaign.

For the country, however, the strategy has been costly. The temporary patches postponed a premature fiscal tightening, but created a fiscal “cliff” at the end of this year. It included the reimposition of the taxes that George W. Bush cut, an increase (in effect) in payroll taxes and a string of across-the-board spending cuts (“sequesters”). You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that wrestling on a cliff-edge is dangerous.

Altogether America is set to see a fiscal tightening equivalent to some 5% of GDP. That is easily enough to tip the economy, which is expected to grow by 2.2% this year, back into recession. Around the same time, the Treasury’s legal authority to keep borrowing more will run out. The last time Congress squabbled over raising this “debt ceiling”, one credit-rating agency stripped America of its precious AAA rating, spooking the markets. With the euro wobbling and emerging markets slowing, businesses are fearful. The cliff adds another huge uncertainty, discouraging companies from investing or hiring until they can see the future more clearly (see article).

Numerous Republicans, Democrats and this newspaper have repeatedly argued that the solution is a grand bargain that raises taxes, preferably through base-broadening reform, and curbs the growth of entitlements (ie, public spending on health care and pensions). This is also the formula that Barack Obama and John Boehner, the leading Republican in the House of Representatives, toyed with last year, before the deal fell apart.

Time to buy time

The best solution by far would be to agree on some version of this grand bargain sooner rather than later. Read the rest of this entry »

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June 14, 2012 at 6:58 am

Free Exchange: Humbler Horizons

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America’s economy is growing at an unimpressive rate. It may not be able to go much faster

May 26th 2012 | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] WHEN the American economy emerged from recession three years ago, forecasters fell into two broad camps. Optimists reckoned brisk growth would quickly return the economy to its long-term potential level of output, the maximum sustainable GDP that could be achieved with the capital and labour on hand. That would pull down unemployment and prop up inflation. Pessimists, however, predicted sluggish growth, persistently high unemployment and inflation that would slip ever lower as a result of unused capacity in the economy.

What has actually happened since then has been a mixture of the two. Unemployment and inflation have moved in the directions that optimists expected. Since peaking at 10% in late 2009, the jobless rate has now fallen by nearly two percentage points. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, dipped below 1% in 2010 but is now above 2%. Yet economic growth has averaged 2.5%, a rate more typical of the economy at full employment rather than when recovering from a deep bust.

Economists advance several explanations for this dichotomy. The drop in unemployment may simply be mechanical, a snapback after employers fired workers too indiscriminately during the recession. Inflation has been underpinned by the indirect effects of higher commodity prices, rising rents and the influence of stable inflation expectations on prices and wages. Optimists say that GDP may be revised up later.

But there is another, more troubling possibility: the crisis may have permanently dented America’s productive capacity. If so, the “output gap” between the economy’s current level of production and its potential level is much smaller than expected. Read the rest of this entry »

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May 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Free trade and the yuan: One step forward, one back

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As trade deals head towards approval, a backlash grows against China

Oct 8th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

 [Greg Ip] THIS was supposed to be a good week for American trade policy. On October 3rd Barack Obama submitted three long-stalled trade agreements to Congress for ratification. Republican and Democratic leaders promised speedy passage. If all goes as planned, the pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea could be ratified in time for a state visit on October 13th by Lee Myung-bak, the Korean president.
But that advance for trade was tempered by a revival of protectionism against China. Read the rest of this entry »

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October 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Economics focus: Prices or jobs?

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Could the Federal Reserve lower unemployment by revamping its goals?

Sep 17th 2011 | from the print edition

 [Greg Ip] THE Federal Reserve has scored highly for creativity over the course of the economic crisis. It has already, in effect, lowered short-term interest rates to zero, and carried out two rounds of quantitative easing (QE), the purchase of government bonds with newly printed money. On August 9th it surprised the market by saying it expected to hold its short-term interest rate where it is until mid-2013. By removing any expectations of monetary tightening before then, the announcement delivered a powerful downward jolt to bond yields. The Fed also disclosed it had discussed other policy options and was “prepared to employ these tools as appropriate”. That has fuelled speculation that the Fed will play yet another card when its policy-setting committee gathers for an extended meeting on September 20th-21st.

The entire article is linked here.

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September 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm

America’s jobs report: Treading water

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Sep 2nd 2011, 15:04 by G.I. | WASHINGTON

IT’S hard to imagine a more toxic economic brew than what America had to swallow in August: stock prices plunged, Europe’s debt crisis deepened, Congress took America to the brink of default and Standard & Poor’s responded by cutting its credit rating. It should not surprise anyone that employers decided it was a lousy time to hire.

Even so, this morning’s numbers from the Labour Department were a shock. Non-farm payroll employment was exactly unchanged in August from July, and total employment was revised down by 57,000 over the previous two months. Read the rest of this entry »

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September 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Self harm

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The twins still watch their bottom line, to the economy’s detriment

Sep 3rd 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg Ip]

AS BARACK OBAMA casts around for ways to bolster the American economy, one area of focus is a still-moribund housing market. He could start by taking a closer look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, America’s housing-finance giants.

When the two government-sponsored entities (GSEs) were listed companies, they acquired or stamped guarantees on millions of loans that in retrospect were far too risky. Those bad loans drove them to the brink of collapse in 2008, forcing their regulator to take them over. The Treasury has since injected some $140 billion into them to keep them solvent. That matters. In the first half of this year the two guaranteed roughly 70% of all new loans. They have also helped 1.7m homeowners through loan modifications and other measures. Yet although the GSEs are ostensibly government-controlled, they still try to maximise profits and minimise losses.

The entire article is linked here.

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September 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm

The economy’s prospects: Waiting for the earth to open

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The usual accelerators of recession are absent—but so are the brakes

Aug 27th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

HOURS after an earthquake struck America’s east coast on August 23rd, office workers were still milling around the streets of Washington, DC and New York (above), nervously waiting for aftershocks. A similar watch over the economy is now under way. The earthquake that ripped through the American economy from 2007 to 2009 is still generating tremors. The latest may be the strongest yet. Since late July stockmarkets in America and round the world have nosedived, fearful that America is falling back into recession and that Europe’s debt crisis will drag down its banks.

America’s economy is certainly weak. It grew at an annualised rate of just 0.4% in the first quarter and 1.3% in the second. Future revisions may push both numbers into negative territory: the economy would have already double-dipped.

Much of that weakness may be traced to the run-up in oil prices that followed the Libyan uprising and to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which disrupted supply chains. As both shocks receded, economic activity turned up. An index of economic reports compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago suggests that the economy grew in July (see chart 1), though it may since have flagged again. Read the rest of this entry »

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August 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm

The deficit “supercommittee”: Fourth time lucky?

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Yet another bipartisan panel gets ready to tackle the deficit

Aug 20th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] IN THE past nine months no fewer than three congressional taskforces have tried, and failed, to bridge the differences between Republicans and Democrats on taming the budget deficit. Now comes the turn of a new joint select committee, or “supercommittee”, as it has been dubbed. Created by the August 2nd agreement that raised the national debt ceiling and cut $917 billion from spending in the coming decade, the new panel is charged with finding another $1.5 trillion to slash from the deficit over the next ten years.

The 12 members selected, drawn equally from both parties and both chambers, do not inspire confidence. One Democratic member heads her party’s Senate re-election campaign; one of the Republicans once headed the Club for Growth, a virulently anti-tax group. Four of the 12 sat on the bipartisan commission led by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and all four opposed its “grand bargain” of sweeping spending cuts and revenue-raising tax reform. None of the members is part of the “gang of six” senators who proposed a plan similar to the Bowles-Simpson commission and, like that commission, got nowhere.

Read the entire article here.


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August 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm