Monday, December 24, 2012

Review of My 2012 Forecasts

by Bill McBride on 12/24/2012 11:52:00 AM

Near the end of each year I try to post a few general forecasts for the coming year. The purpose is to try to provide an overview of how I think the economy will perform.

Some years there are BIG calls, like in late 2006 when I predicted a recession would start in 2007 (made it by one month!). Another “BIG” call example was in early 2009 when I started writing about a second half economic recovery.

Most of my forecasts are more mundane, as an example for 2012 GDP, I wrote:

“my guess is growth will be sluggish relative to the slack in the system, but above the 2011 growth rate. “
Right now “sluggish” looks correct, and if Q4 2012 GDP is at or above 1.6% (annualized), then 2012 will actually be better than 2011 (Q4 over Q4 of previous year). But even if I had been wrong, I find it useful to write down some forecasts and then to understand why I was right or wrong. (I’d say my guess on growth was about right).

Of course my BIG call for 2012 was that house prices would finally find a bottom as measured by the national repeat sales indexes (see: The Housing Bottom is Here). In early 2012, I wrote:
“My guess is that nominal house prices, using the national repeat sales indexes and not seasonally adjusted, will bottom in March 2012.”
As of right now – with prices up almost 5% seasonally adjusted since early this year – the house price bottom call looks correct.

Note: When I wrote that post, the consensus was house prices would decline throughout 2012. Since then the consensus has changed and most analysts now think prices bottomed early this year.

I did get a couple of forecasts wrong in 2012. For the unemployment rate, I wrote:
A couple of predictions.

• The participation rate will rise slightly in 2012 and probably end the year in the 64.0% to 64.5% range.

• The unemployment rate will still be in the 8% to 9% range in December 2012.
Even though I’ve been arguing that most of the decline in the participation rate over the last few years was due to changing demographics (as opposed to cyclical due to the recession), I still thought we’d see some slight increase in participation in 2012 – and that didn’t happen.

Employment Pop Ratio, participation and unemployment ratesClick on graph for larger image.

The participation rate fell to 63.6% in November, and the unemployment rate declined to 7.7%. (Participation rate is the blue line. This is the percentage of the working age population in the labor force).

Since I was wrong on the participation rate, my forecast for the unemployment rate was too pessimistic.

I was also too pessimistic on foreclosures. I wrote:
Will foreclosure activity increase in 2012?

This is a difficult question. There are several significant policy changes in the works: 1) a possible Mortgage Settlement, 2) HARP refinance (the automated program starts in March), and 3) a REO to rental program. It appears the overall goal of these policy changes is to reduce the large backlog of seriously delinquent loans while, at the same time, not flood the housing market with distressed homes.

My guess is the policy changes will all be announced in the next few months, and that foreclosure activity will increase significantly.
The policy changes were announced, but the lenders focused more on modifications and short sales than foreclosures, and foreclosure activity has only picked up recently in some judicial foreclosure states.

On employment I was close. I wrote:
My guess is private employment will increase around 150 to 200 thousand per month on average in 2012; about the same rate as in 2011.

With over 13 million unemployed workers - and 5.6 million unemployed for more than 26 weeks - adding 2 million private sector jobs will not seem like much of job recovery for many Americans. Hopefully I'm too pessimistic.
That was about right. The economy has added 1.7 million private sector jobs through November (over 1.8 million including the preliminary benchmark revision).

A key forecast – that appears correct – was that the drag from state and local governments would end around mid-year. I wrote:
It is looking like there will be less drag from state and local governments in 2012, and that most of the drag will be over by the end of Q2 (end of FY 2012). This doesn't mean state and local government will add to GDP in the 2nd half of 2012, just that the drag on GDP and employment will probably end. Just getting rid of the drag will help.
State and Local GovernmentThis graph shows total state and government payroll employment since January 2007. State and local governments lost 129,000 jobs in 2009, 262,000 in 2010, and 230,000 in 2011. So far in 2012, state and local governments have actually added a few jobs, and state and local government employment increased by 4,000 in November.

Note: The dashed line shows an estimate including the benchmark revision.

It appears most of the state and local government layoffs are over, however the Federal government layoffs are ongoing. 

State and Local Government Residential Investment GDPThis graph shows the contribution to percent change in GDP for residential investment and state and local governments since 2005.

The blue bars are for residential investment (RI), and RI was a significant drag on GDP for several years. Now RI has added to GDP growth for the last 6 quarters (through Q3 2012).

The red bars are for state and local governments. Although not as large a negative as the worst of the housing bust (and much smaller spillover effects), this decline has been relentless and unprecedented. The good news is the drag appears to be ending, and state and local governments actually added to GDP growth in Q3 2012 - for the first time since Q3 2009.

A few more forecasts - On monetary policy I wrote:
• I expect the Fed will change their communication strategy and add a likely future path of the Fed Funds rate to the quarterly economic forecasts.

• I think QE3 is likely, but more towards mid-year - and [timing] is data dependent.
The Fed introduced the new communication strategy, and then changed it again near the end of 2012. They waited a little longer than I expected, and the FOMC announced QE3 in September.

And on inflation:
The bottom line is the inflation rate will probably stay low in 2012 with high unemployment and low resource utilization. I expect QE3 to be announced before mid-year, and that will probably keep the inflation rate near the Fed's target (as opposed to falling further). But I don't see inflation as a significant threat in 2012.
The inflation outlook was correct. It is stunning how many analysts and policymakers have consistently been wrong on inflation for the last several years - and they still haven't changed their views or models!

And on Europe and the Euro:
So once again my guess is the euro will survive another year without losing any countries (Assuming a Greek debt deal). There will be plenty of blowups along the way, but I think the impact on the US economy will be fairly minimal.
I was pessimistic on Europe, but less pessimistic than many others. And once again Europe made it through another year.

All and all the economy evolved about as I expected in 2012. I’ll try to post some forecasts for 2013 soon, but I’ll wait until we see the details of the fiscal agreement. Policy matters – and the key downside risk for the US economy in 2013 is rapid austerity.

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