The U.S. Treasury Department announced Friday it had formally established two new working groups to discuss China-U.S. economic and financial issues, a tentative sign that communication is improving between the two countries following a trip to Beijing by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen this summer.
The stock market may not literally be the economy, but the distinction between the two is getting increasingly harder to draw.
With household ownership of stocks scaling new heights and the destiny of companies — particularly in the innovative tech sector — tied to their share prices, the fates of Wall Street and Main Street have never been so intertwined.
So as the stock market goes through this volatile period, it’s not sending a particularly good sign for the broader growth outlook.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve had a financial economy that has grown significantly,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist for the Americas at Natixis. “You could have argued a few decades ago that the stock market was not the economy, and that was very accurate. That is no longer the case today.”
No one would argue that the stock market is all of the economy, but it’s also hard to dispute the notion that it’s become a larger part of everyday life.
Through the end of 2021, the share of household wealth that comes from directly or indirectly held stocks hit a record 41.9%, more than double where it was 30 years ago, according to data from the Federal Reserve. A host of factors, from the advent of online trading to stock-friendly monetary policy to a lackluster global economy, has made U.S. equities an attractive place to park money and earn nice returns.
It’s also made the economy much more susceptible to shocks on Wall Street.
“When risk assets fall and fall fast enough, there’s no question they’re going to hurt growth,” said LaVorgna, who was chief economist for the National Economic Council under former President Donald Trump. “If anything, the relationship is even better when asset prices decline than when they go up.”
How it works
The transmission mechanism between the market and economic growth is multipronged but fairly simple.
Stocks and consumer confidence historically have been linked closely, so when stocks fall people tend to curtail spending. The decline in spending slows sales growth and makes share prices less attractive when compared to future earnings. In turn, that triggers a market reaction that spills back into less wealth on consumer balance sheets.
There’s also another important point: Companies, particularly innovation-heavy Silicon Valley firms, constantly need to raise capital and look to growth in their stock prices to do so.
“In addition to the wealth effect on consumers, [the market] does affect investment decisions by companies, particularly the high-growth companies, the tech companies, that rely on raising capital through the equity market to finance their growth,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.
“If stock prices are down, it’s much more difficult to raise equity. Their cost of capital is also a lot higher, therefore they’re not going to be able to expand as aggressively,” he added. “That’s another element of the line between what’s happening in the equity market and economic growth.”
If revenue growth gets weak enough, companies then have to find a way to cut costs to make their bottom-line numbers.
The first place they usually look: payrolls.
Employment has been rising at a steady pace over the past two years, but that can come to an end if the current market tumult persists.
“Companies manage their share price, and they want to make sure those projections remain intact as best they can maneuver that,” said Quincy Krosby, chief equity strategist at LPL Financial. “If need be, they will bring costs down. For most companies, their main cost of capital is labor. That’s another reason why the Fed has to watch this.”
Where the Fed fits in
Indeed, the Federal Reserve is a major component as well in the link between the markets and the economy.
Central bankers always have been attuned to market gyrations, but following the 2008 financial crisis, monetary policy has even more so relied on risk assets as a transmission mechanism. The Fed has bought more than $8 trillion in bonds since then in an effort to keep rates low and maintain the movement of cash through the economy, and that includes the financial economy.
“Consumers are extraordinarily involved in the equity market, and the Fed has put them there,” said Steve Blitz, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard. “Consumers have been big buyers of equities ever since 2016, in particular. We’ve seen a really big correlation between equity prices and discretionary spending.”
Fed officials, though, might not mind seeing some of the froth come out of Wall Street.
For the central bank, inflation remains its main problem, and that has come from supply that has been unable to meet with relentless consumer demand for goods over services. Markets have been in sell-off mode since Thursday, the day after the Fed announced a 50-basis-point rate increase that was the biggest hike in 22 years.
The Fed also is going to start shedding some of those bonds it has accumulated, another process that directly affects Wall Street but also finds its way to Main Street through higher borrowing costs, especially on home loans.
So the market and the economy “are different, but they are joined at points,” Krosby said. The market “is a component of financial conditions, and as the market pulls back, the assumption is it can help curtail demand, which is one of the things they want. They want to slow the economy.”
Still, Zandi, the Moody’s economist, cautions against letting the current downturn in which the S&P 500 has tumbled about 15% year to date send too strong a signal about a recession ahead.
GDP dropped at a 1.4% pace in the first quarter, but most Wall Street economists see stronger growth through the end of the year, if nowhere near the big gains of 2021.
“The market is a prescient indicator of where the economy is headed, but overstates the case generally,” Zandi said. “So the sell-off we’re seeing now strongly argues for a slowly growing economy, perhaps an economy that’s flirting with recession. But it’s probably getting ahead of itself in that regard.”
US-China Relations Thaw With Groups to Discuss Economic, Financial Issues – Bloomberg
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U.S., China agree to forge new economic, financial dialogues
The working groups will hold regular direct meetings for “frank and substantive discussions on economic and financial policy matters,” the Treasury statement said. It added that the dialogues would also include and “exchange of information on macroeconomic and financial developments.”
The high-level meetings will be led by Yellen on the U.S. side. China’s economic czar, Vice Premier He Lifeng, will oversee the work led by different agencies in Beijing. U.S. Treasury officials will hold dialogues for the economic working group with Beijing’s Finance Ministry, while the financial talks will take place with representatives from China’s Central Bank.
The new dialogues are part of broader efforts by the White House to reestablish communication channels between Washington and Beijing on a range of geopolitical, security and economic matters following talks between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali last year. Those efforts have been hampered by hot-button issues, including the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the continental United States in February and rolling U.S. trade restrictions aimed at limiting Beijing’s access to U.S. technology.
Nonetheless, the two sides have made strides this year. After abruptly canceling a visit over the spy balloon furor, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing in June. Yellen’s visit in July was followed by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s in August, where she announced that the two sides had agreed to hold an official ongoing dialogue on commercial issues, beginning in early 2024, drawing in individuals from the private sector with the aim of resolving issues over U.S. commercial access to the Chinese market.
The new dialogues agreed to by Yellen and He appear to have a broader scope, but it is unclear how often the meetings will take place. In Friday’s statement, the Treasury Department said they would happen at a “regular cadence.” Chinese official media released a brief statement confirming the establishment of the working groups that was sparse on detail, but said the group plans to hold “regular and irregular” meetings.
“These Working Groups will serve as important forums to communicate America’s interests and concerns, promote a healthy economic competition between our two countries with a level playing field for American workers and businesses, and advance cooperation on global challenges,” said Yellen in a statement posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, on Friday following the Treasury Department announcement.
Regular high-level economic dialogues between Treasury officials and Beijing were mostly dismantled in 2017, when the Trump administration began implementing sweeping tariffs, trade restrictions and sanctions against Beijing — many of which have remained in place or been extended under the current administration.
Before Yellen’s visit in July, no U.S. treasury secretary had visited Beijing since 2019, when then-Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a team of negotiators conducted limited talks following a total breakdown in discussions months before.
While the new working groups signal a thawing in the economic relationship, communication between the two sides remains fragile. Beijing routinely expresses skepticism of U.S. commitments and has accused officials in Washington of failing to follow through on high-level discussions. Officials in Beijing maintain that the United States has arbitrarily broadened trade and economic restrictions to contain China’s economic growth under the guise of national and economic security.
Most recently, Beijing accused the United States of ongoing economic “bullying” after Biden in August signed an executive order to establish a screening mechanism for outbound investments and to restrict U.S. investment in advanced Chinese technologies, including semiconductors.
“President Biden committed to not seeking to ‘decouple’ from China or halt China’s economic development. We urge the U.S. to follow through on that commitment, stop politicizing, instrumentalizing and weaponizing tech and trade issues,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin following the August announcement.
Yellen and other U.S. officials have sought to push ahead with efforts to reopen channels of communication, while warning that the Biden administration will continue to take targeted actions to protect U.S. national security.
“It is vital that we talk, particularly when we disagree,” said Yellen in her statement on X on Friday.
Net zero: Will Rishi Sunak’s changes to climate policies save money?
LONDON — Amid growing international criticism, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended watering down key U.K. climate policies.
In a press conference Wednesday, Sunak announced a series of major U-turns on climate policies, including delaying by five years the target to ban sales of new gas and diesel cars — which will now come into force in 2035 rather than 2030 — and a nine-year delay on phasing out gas boilers, which will now come into force in 2035.
Sunak insisted he was not slowing down efforts to combat climate change. But his government’s own climate adviser called the prime minister’s assertion that the U.K. would still succeed in meeting its 2050 net-zero target “wishful thinking.”
Sunak said the changes were about being “pragmatic” and sparing the British public the “unacceptable cost” of net-zero commitments.
His home secretary, Suella Braverman, told the BBC that the Conservative government was “not going to save the planet by bankrupting British people.”
The government’s Climate Change Committee — independent advisers on cutting carbon emissions — estimates that meeting Britain’s legally binding goal of reaching net zero by 2050 will require an extra $61 billion of investment every year by 2030.
But the committee has said that once the savings from reduced use of fossil fuels are factored in, the overall resource cost of the transition to net zero will be less than 1% of GDP over the next 30 years. By 2044, the committee has said, breaching net zero should become cost-saving, as newer clean technologies are more efficient than those they are replacing.
Criticism at home and abroad
Sunak’s overhaul of his green targets has been met with criticism at home and internationally.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore described the changes as “shocking and disappointing” and “not what the world needs from the United Kingdom.”
Some in the prime minister’s own Conservative Party warned that the changes risk damaging Britain’s reputation as a global leader on the climate.
Sunak decided not to attend the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this week, making him the first British prime minister to miss a U.N. General Assembly in a decade.
Former Conservative minister Alok Sharma, who chaired the 2021 COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, told the BBC Wednesday’s announcement had been met with “consternation” from international colleagues.
“My concern is whether people now look to us and say, ‘Well, if the U.K. is starting to row back on some of these policies, maybe we should do the same,'” he said.
In the U.K., Sunak’s announcement prompted a backlash from climate activists, car manufacturers and the energy industry.
In a statement, U.K. Ford chair Lisa Brankin said, “Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
And the chief executive of one of Britain’s largest energy suppliers, Eon UK, said the move was a “misstep on many levels.”
Sunak’s pivot occurs as extreme weather due to climate change is growing more frequent
Sunak said the announcement was part of his desire for a more “honest debate” about what reaching net zero will actually mean for the British public.
But he has come under criticism from the British media for claiming to scrap measures that some have pointed out never existed as formal government policy in the first place, such as taxing meat and requiring households to have seven different waste and recycling bins. (The government had previously said it wanted to standardize waste collection in England, although the plan was subsequently delayed and never became policy).
Political analysts say Sunak’s gamble marks a shift for the prime minister, who has spent his first year in office largely steadying the ship after the tumultuous governments of his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. With a general election coming up next year, they say, Sunak has chosen net zero as a dividing line.
Sunak’s pivot away from more aggressive action on global warming occurs as extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more intense around the world, including the U.K., because of the effects of climate change. Scientists say this will continue as long as humans continue to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases.
In the U.K., temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time on record in July 2022. The World Weather Attribution network says this would have been “basically impossible” without climate change.
During this week’s climate summit in New York, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the capital faced what he called the “incredibly worrying” prospect of seeing 45-degree Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) days in the “forseeable future.”
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