"Those predicting Mr. Trump’s imminent political demise are ignoring the lessons of recent history":
A Heckuva Job, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Katrina was special in political terms because it revealed such a huge gap between image and reality. Ever since 9/11, former President George W. Bush had been posing as a strong, effective leader keeping America safe. He wasn’t. But as long as he was talking tough about terrorists, it was hard for the public to see what a lousy job he was doing. It took a domestic disaster, which made his administration’s cronyism and incompetence obvious to anyone with a TV set, to burst his bubble.
What we should have learned from Katrina, in other words, was that political poseurs with nothing much to offer besides bluster can nonetheless fool many people into believing that they’re strong leaders. And that’s a lesson we’re learning all over again as the 2016 presidential race unfolds.
You probably think I’m talking about Donald Trump, and I am. But he’s not the only one.
Consider, if you will, the case of Chris Christie. Not that long ago he was regarded as a strong contender for the presidency... Now Mr. Christie looks pathetic — did you hear the one about his plan to track immigrants as if they were FedEx packages? But he hasn’t changed, he’s just come into focus.
Or consider Jeb Bush... What happened to Jeb the smart, effective leader? He never existed.
And there’s more. Remember when Scott Walker was the man to watch? Remember when Bobby Jindal was brilliant?
I know, now I’m supposed to be evenhanded, and point out equivalent figures on the Democratic side. But there really aren’t any; in modern America, cults of personality built around undeserving politicians seem to be a Republican thing. ...
Which brings us back to Mr. Trump.
Both the Republican establishment and the punditocracy have been shocked by Mr. Trump’s continuing appeal to the party’s base. He’s a ludicrous figure, they complain. His policy proposals, such as they are, are unworkable, and anyway, don’t people realize the difference between actual leadership and being a star on reality TV?
But ... those predicting Mr. Trump’s imminent political demise are ignoring the lessons of recent history, which tell us that poseurs with a knack for public relations can con the public for a very long time. Someday The Donald will have his Katrina moment, when voters see him for who he really is. But don’t count on it happening any time soon.
Does 25bp Make A Difference?, by Tim Duy: I am often asked if 25bp really makes any difference? If not, why does it matter when the Fed makes its first move? The Fed would like you to believe that 25bp really isn't all that important. Indeed, they don't want us focused on the timing of the first move at all, reiterating that the path of rates is most important. Yet I have come to believe that the timing of the first rate hike is important for two reasons. First, it will help clarify the Fed's reaction function. Second, if the experience of Japan and others who have tried to hike rates in the current global macroeconomic environment is any example, the Fed will only get one shot at pulling the economy off the zero bound. They better get it right.
On the first point, consider that there is no widespread agreement on the timing of the Fed's first move. Odds for September have been bouncing around 50%, lower after a couple of weeks of market turmoil, but bolstered by the Fed's "stay the course" message from Jackson Hole. I think you can contribute the lack of consensus to the conflicting signals send by the Fed's dual mandate. On one hand, labor markets are improving unequivocally. The economy is adding jobs and measures of both unemployment and underemployment continue to improve. The Fed has said that only "some" further progress is necessary to meet the employment portion of the dual mandate. I would argue the Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer even was kind enough to define "some" while in Jackson Hole:
In addition, the July announcement set a condition of requiring "some further improvement in the labor market." From May through July, non-farm payroll employment gains have averaged 235,000 per month. We now await the results of the August employment survey, which are due to be published on September 4.
Nonfarm payroll growth was the only labor market indicator he put a number to. He clearly intended to tie that number to the Fed statement. Basically, he said "some" further improvement is simply another month of the same pattern.
While the Fed is moving closer to the employment mandate, however, the price stability mandate is moving further from view:
On a year-over-year basis, core-CPI is at four year lows, and the collapse in the monthly change suggests that year-over-year trends will not soon turn in the Fed's favor. One can argue that the net effect on policy should be zero. After all, the Fed has long argued that inflation will revert to target, yet inflation has only drifted away from target. What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving farther from their inflation target?
Fischer, however is undeterred:
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
So back to the question: What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving further from their inflation target? Answer: The Federal Reserve. Why? Faith in their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. Inflation expectations hold the baseline steady, shocks cause deviations from that baseline. The shocks will all dissipate over time, including labor market shocks. The economy is approaching full employment, therefore the downward pressure from labor market slack will soon diminish and turn into upward pressure in the absence of tighter monetary policy.
Now note that, aside from the equilibrium real rate, of the four variables in a Taylor-type reaction function, only one of those variables is unobserved. The target inflation rate is defined, and unemployment and inflation are measured. The natural rate of unemployment is unobserved and needs to be estimated. How confident are policymaker's in their estimate (5.0-5.2 percent) of the natural rate of unemployment?
I would argue that the Fed will reveal a high degree of confidence in that estimate if they hike rates in the face of inflation drifting away from trend. That would be new information in defining their reaction function. I think it would be a signal that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has largely abandoned here concerns about underemployment, which remains unacceptably high.
The clarification of the Fed's reaction function by narrowing the confidence interval around the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment would, I think, be an important new piece of information. Moreover, I think it would be a fairly hawkish signal - remember that financial market participants, as well as the Federal Reserve staff, tend to have a more dovish outlook that FOMC participants. The sooner the Fed hikes rate, the more hawkish the signal relative to expectations.
That signal, I suspect, is more important than the actual 25bp. The latter might not mean much, but at the zero bound, the former probably means a lot.
The timing of the first hike is also important because the Fed will only get one bite at the apple. That at least is what we saw with the rush to tighten in Japan, Europe, and Sweden. The downside risks of tightening too early are thus enormous, amounting to essentially locking your economy into a subpar equilibrium. This was the Fed's staff's warning in the last set of minutes:
The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff's assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.
Again, Fischer seems to fear the opposite risk more. Via the New York Times:
And Mr. Fischer emphasized that Fed officials could not afford to wait until all of their questions were answered and all of their doubts resolved. “When the case is overwhelming,” he said, “if you wait that long, then you’ve waited too long.”
I am not looking for an overwhelming case, just inflation that is trending toward target instead of away. Yet even that is apparently too much for Fischer as unemployment bears down on their estimate of the full employment.
You can take the central banker out of the 1970's, but you can't take the 1970's out of the central banker.
Bottom Line: I am coming around to the belief that the timing of the first rate hike is more important than Fed officials would like us to believe. The lack of consensus regarding the timing of the first hike tells me that we don't fully understand the Fed's reaction function and, importantly, their confidence in their estimates of the natural rate of unemployment. The timing of the first hike will thus define that reaction function and thus send an important signal about the Fed's overall policy intentions.
This is a summary of new research from two of our former graduate students here at the University of Oregon, Harold Cuffe and Chris Gibbs (link to full paper):
The effect of payday lending restrictions on liquor sales – Synopsis, by Harold Cuffe and Chris Gibbs: The practice of short-term consumer financing known as payday lending remains controversial because the theoretical gains in welfare from greater credit access stand in opposition to anecdotal evidence that many borrowers are made worse off. Advocates for the industry assert that the loans fill a gap in credit access for underserved individuals facing temporary financial hardship. Opponents, who include many state legislatures and the Obama administration, argue that lenders target financially vulnerable individuals with little ability to pay down their principal, who may end up paying many times the borrowed amount in interest and fees.
Regulations restricting both payday loan and liquor access seek to minimize the potential for overuse. To justify intervention in the two markets, policy makers note a host of negative externalities associated with each product, and cite behavioral motivations underlying individuals' consumption decisions. In particular, researchers have shown that the same models of impulsivity and dynamically inconsistent decision making - hyperbolic preferences and the cue theory of consumption - used to describe the demand for alcohol, also describe patterns of payday loan usage. In these models, individuals can objectively benefit from a restricted choice set that limits their access to loans and liquor. The overlap in behavioral characteristics of over-users of both products suggests that liquor sales is a reasonable and interesting place to test the effectiveness of payday lending regulations.
To identify the causal effect of lending restrictions on liquor sales, we exploit a change in payday lending laws in the State of Washington. Leveraging lender- and liquor store-level data, we estimate a difference-in-differences model comparing Washington to the neighboring State of Oregon, which did not experience a change in payday lending laws during this time. We find that the law change leads to a significant reduction in liquor sales, with the largest decreases occurring at liquor stores located very near to payday lenders at the time the law took effect. Our results provide compelling evidence on how credit constraints affect consumer spending, suggest a behavioral mechanism that may underlie some payday loan usage, and provide evidence that the Washington’s payday lending regulations reduced one form of loan misuse.
Washington State enacted HB 1709 on January, 1st 2010, which introduced three new major restrictions to the payday loan industry. First the law limited the size of a payday loan to 30% of a person's monthly income or $700, whichever is less. Second the law created a state-wide database to track the issuance of payday loans in order to set a hard cap on the number of loans an individual could obtain in a twelve month period to eight, and eliminated multiple concurrent loans. This effectively prohibited the repayment of an existing loan with a new one. In the year prior to the law, the State of Washington estimated that roughly one third of all payday loan borrowers took out more than eight loans. Finally, the law mandated that borrowers were entitled to a 90 day instalment plan to pay back loans of $400 or less or 180 days for loans over $400.
The effect of the law on the industry was severe. There were 603 payday loan locations active in Washington in 2009 that were responsible for 3.24 million loans worth $1.366 billion according to Washington Division of Financial Institutions. In the year following the law change, the number of payday lenders dropped to 424, and loan volume fell to 1.09 million loans worth only $434 million. The following year the number of locations fell again to 256 with a loan volume of roughly 900,000 worth $330 million. Today there are fewer than 200 lenders in Washington and the total loan volume and value has stabilized close to the 2011 values.
A crucial feature of our estimation strategy involves accounting for potentially endogenous supply side factors that challenge efforts to separately identify changes in demand from the store response to the change. To do so, we focus on liquor control states, in which the state determines the number and location of liquor stores, the products offered, and harmonizes prices across stores to regulate and restrict liquor access. Oregon and Washington were both liquor control states until June of 2012 (Washington privatized liquor sales in June 2012).
For this study, we use monthly store-level sales data provided by Oregon's and Washington's respective liquor control agencies from July 2008 through March 2012. Figure 4 plots estimated residuals from a regression of log liquor store sales on a set of store-by-month fixed effects, averaged over state and quarter. The graph possesses three notable features. First, prior to Washington's lending restrictions (indicated by the vertical dashed line), the states' log sales are trending in parallel, which confirming the plausibility of the ``common trends'' assumption of the DD model. Second, a persistent gap in the states' sales appears in the same quarter as the law change. This gap is the result of a relatively large downward movement in Washington's sales compared to Oregon's, consistent with a negative effect of the law on sales. Finally, the effect appears to be primarily a level shift as sales in both states maintain a common upward trend.
Our regression estimates indicate that the introduction of payday lending restrictions reduced liquor store sales by approximately 3.6% (statistically significant at the 1% level). As average Washington liquor sales were approximately $163,000 in the months prior to the law change, this represents a $5,900 decline per store each month. At the state level, the point estimate implies a $23.5 million dollar annual decrease in liquor sales. As Washington State reported that the law decreased payday loans by $932 million from 2009 to 2010, this decline represents approximately 2.5% of the change in total value of loans issued.
We see two primary explanations (not mutually exclusive) for the decline in Washington liquor sales in response to the law change. First, the effect may represent a wider permanent reduction in consumption as households lose their ability to cope with unforeseen negative income shocks. Alternatively, the drop in spending may indicate a more direct financing of liquor purchases by individuals with present-biased preferences. The first explanation implies that restrictions on payday lending negatively affect consumer welfare, while the second allows for a positive impact, since individuals with present-biased preferences may be made objectively better off with a restricted choice set.
Zinman (2013) highlights Laibson (2001) theory of Pavlovian cues as a particularly intriguing explanation for payday loan usage. In these models, consumer ``impulsivity'' makes instant gratification a special case during dynamic utility maximization, where exposure to a cue can explain dynamically inconsistent behavior. Indeed, Laibson uses liquor as a prime example of a consumption good thought to be influenced by cues, and subsequent experimental research on liquor uncovers evidence consistent with this hypothesis (MacKillop et al (2010)). In situations where payday lenders locate very near to liquor stores, individuals may be exposed to a cue for alcohol, and then see the lender as a means to satisfy the urge to make an immediate purchase. A lender and liquor store separated by even a brief walk may be far enough apart to allow an individual to resist the urge to obtain both the loan and liquor. Of course, cue-theory of consumption makes lender-liquor store distance relevant even in circumstances where individuals experience a cue only after borrowing. Lenders locating near liquor stores increase the likelihood that an individual exposed to a cue is financially liquid, and able to act on an impulse.
To investigate liquor store and lender proximity, we geocode the stores' and lenders' street addresses, and calculate walking distances for all liquor store-lender pairs within two kilometers of one another. We then repeatedly estimate our preferred specification with a full set of controls on an ever expanding window of liquor stores beginning with the stores that were located within a ten meter walking distance of a lender in the month prior to the law change, then within 100 meters, within 200 meters, etc., to two kilometres. These estimates are presented in Figure 5. The graph demonstrates a negative effect of 9.2% on those liquor stores that had a payday lender located within ten meters in the month before the law change (significant at the 1% levels), an effect almost three times as large as that overall. The larger effect rapidly declines in distance suggesting that even a small degree of separation is significant. The degree of nonlinearity in the relationship between distance and liquor sales supports the behavioral explanation of demand.
Our analysis provides the first empirical evidence of the connection between payday lending and spending on liquor. We uncover a clear reduction in liquor sales resulting from payday lending restrictions. In addition, we find that those liquor stores located very near to lenders at the time of the law change experience declines in sales almost three times as large as the overall average.
This finding is significant because it highlights that a segment of borrowers may be willing to assume significant risk by borrowing in order to engage in alcohol consumption - an activity which carries significant personal risk of its own. The connection between payday lending restrictions and reduced liquor purchases, therefore, suggests that the benefits to payday lending restrictions extend beyond personal finance and may be large.
Effective payday loan regulation should recognize the potential for greater credit access to help or harm consumers. As Carrell and Zinman (2014) highlight, heterogeneity likely exists within the pool of payday loan users, and external factors will influence the ratio of ``productive and counter-productive borrowers.'' Lending restrictions can seek to reduce the proportion of counterproductive borrowers through the prohibition of practices known to harm consumers, including those that rely upon leveraging behavioral responses such as addiction and impulsivity. The behavioral overlap identified in the literature between counterproductive payday loan borrowers and heavy alcohol users suggests that there exists a link between the two markets. The decline in liquor sales documented here provides evidence that these regulations may be effective in promoting productive borrowing.
1. Carrell, Scott and Jonathan Zinman, “In harm's way? Payday loan access and military personnel performance," Review of Financial Studies, 2014, 27(9), 2805-2840.
2. Laibson, David, “A cue-theory of consumption," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001, pp. 81-119.
3. MacKillop, James, Sean O'Hagen, Stephen A Lisman, James G Murphy, Lara A Ray, Jennifer W Tidey, John E McGeary, and Peter M Monti, “Behavioral economic analysis of cue-elicited craving for alcohol," Addiction, 2010, 105 (9), 1599-1607.
4. Zinman, Jonathan, “Consumer Credit: Too Much or Too Little (or Just Right)?," Working Paper 19682, National Bureau of Economic Research November 2013.
If you can't get enough on China, here's more from Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:
Is China's devaluation a game changer?: Since 1978, China has engaged in an unprecedented and wildly successful experiment, moving gradually from a command economy to one based on markets; in small steps transforming a system where administrators controlled the goods that were produced to one where prices allocate resources. There were surely miscalculations along the way. But, even big blunders could largely be concealed. Until now!
What has changed in recent months? The day has come for China to become more closely integrated into the global financial system, and this has a number of implications. The most important is that as prices and quantities of financial assets (rather than goods) are determined in markets, bureaucrats lose a great deal of control. But, as recent events very clearly demonstrate, Chinese authorities are reluctant to let go.
Last August, we posted our most popular blog piece to date: China’s Capital Controls and the Exchange Rate Regime. In it, we explained how capital controls make it possible for China to maintain a fixed exchange rate while policymakers could adjust interest rates to stabilize their domestic economy. We also highlighted how these same capital controls are incompatible with the objectives of making Shanghai a global financial center and the renminbi (RMB) a leading international currency. Given the risks inherent in freeing cross-border capital flows, we concluded that the process of financial liberalization (both domestically and externally) would remain gradual. Yet, having seen China develop in unprecedented ways in the past, we have been watching to see if China could also alter conventional paradigms of finance and monetary policy. Could China do what no one else has done?
Well, it turns out that the “impossible trinity” or “trilemma” – which compels policymakers to choose only two of three from among free capital flows, discretionary monetary policy, and a fixed exchange rate – may be more like a physical law than nearly any economic principle we know. And policymakers in China look to be quite unhappy about the constraints this is creating. (For more on the impossible trinity, see here and here.)
Here’s what has happened. ...
After a detailed discussion of the issue, they conclude with:
... For a country that wishes its currency to join the ranks of the reserve currencies, the reputational costs of a modest devaluation would seem to sharply exceed any possible economic benefits. Ultimately, a true reserve currency is one that is reliably available to provide liquidity insurance internationally even in tough times. As our friend and colleague William Silber notes in his book on the financial upheavals that accompanied World War I, this is one reason staying on the gold standard propelled the U.S. dollar to the reserve status it still maintains today. Imagine, instead, that American officials in 1914 had chosen to leave the gold standard in order to achieve a depreciation of 3%!
The Chinese authorities’ newly demonstrated lack of confidence in financial markets – whether the RMB or equities – undermines their promise to increase reliance on market forces. So, while the IMF welcomed the RMB “regime shift,” no one anticipates a floating currency regime anytime soon. Similarly, the government’s clumsy equity market interventions have encouraged investors to push back the expected timing for including China’s domestic equities in key international benchmarks, and at least temporarily dampened hopes for Shanghai to become an international financial center. But, without a system in which foreign exchange and equity prices are market determined, global integration of China’s financial system as well as reserve status for its currency will remain beyond the country’s grasp.
The bottom line: Today, China is the world’s largest economy on a purchasing-power parity basis. And it still has the second largest equity market (by trading volume and capitalization). If and when market forces clearly become the dominant factor in currency and equity price determination, the RMB and China’s financial assets will gain sharply in global importance, as will China’s domestic financial markets. Yet, by this standard, China’s 3% devaluation is no game changer. If anything, the recent actions by the government have delayed its achievement of these aims.
The case for realism in the social realm, Understanding Society: The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because we cannot directly observe or measure the properties of the hypothetical entities. But the theories as wholes have a great deal of predictive and descriptive power, and they permit us to explain and predict a wide range of physical phenomena. And the best explanation of the success of these theories is that they are true: that the world consists of entities and forces approximately similar to those hypothesized in physical theory. So realism is an inference to the best explanation, based on the engineering and observational successes of physics, chemistry, and biology. (In the diagram above we might hypothesize that the foraging strategies of the albatross have evolved towards a combination of random walk and orderly search pattern through a process of natural selection; this hypothesis can be empirically investigated in a variety of ways.)
If we lived in a more chaotic physical world, with a larger number of more variable forces at work, our physical theories would be greatly less successful at representing the behavior of observable physical systems, and we would have much less confidence in the idea that various snippets of our physical theories are "true" of the world. If space were more like a pudding with abrupt variations in curvature and gravitational force, and were in addition subject to a numerous other factors and forces, our confidence in the science of mechanics would be greatly undermined. We would never know even approximately where the fly ball will go.
The situation in political science and sociology is quite different from astronomy, atomic theory, and mechanics. First, there are no theories in the social sciences that have the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. Second, the social world is more like the fantastic and chaotic scenario just mentioned than it is an ice rink with frictionless surfaces and predictable mechanics. The social world embodies multiple heterogeneous causal and structural influences that aggregate in contingent and surprising ways. Third, sociologists and political scientists sometimes make hypotheses about unobservable or hypothetical social entities. But these hypotheses do not assume the logical role of that played by hypotheses in the natural sciences. Hypothetical social entities may be unobservable in a fairly ordinary sense -- no one can directly observe or measure a social class. But in fact, these concepts do not depend on holistic confirmation in the way that hypotheses in the natural sciences do. Rather, it is perfectly possible to further refine our ideas about "social class", "prisoners' dilemma", or "bipolar security field" and then investigate the manifold aspects of these concepts through direct social research. Sociology and political science do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences; instead, it is possible to investigate essentially every sociological or political concept through various direct methods of research and inquiry. (This ability is not unique to the social sciences. The study of animal behavior likewise admits of a variety of hypotheses at various levels that can be independently studied.)
In short, the social sciences do not possess the remarkable coherence and predictive accuracy of physics, so confidence in realism is not grounded in the high level of success of the enterprise. Sociology is not like physics.
But equally, the concepts of the social sciences are not "hypothetical constructs" that depend upon their role in a developed theoretical system for application. It is therefore possible to be piecemeal realists. Again, sociology is not like physics.
So it seems that two specific ideas follow. First, the inference to the best explanation argument for realism doesn't work at all in sociology or political science. We simply don't have the extraordinary predictive successes of a theoretical system that would constitute the ground of such an argument. Social science theories and models remain heuristic and suggestive, but rarely strongly indicative of the reality of the social factors they highlight.
But second, there is a very different kind of argument for social realism that is not available in the natural sciences: the piecemeal investigation of claims and theories about social entities, properties, and forces. If we believe that class conflict is a key factor in explaining political outcomes, we can do sociological research to further articulate what we mean by class and class conflict, and we can investigate specific social and political processes to piece together the presence or absence of these kinds of factors.
So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the "inference to the best explanation" argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.
Rather, more modestly, theory (at least in one of its clear senses) aims to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience. We understand why the planets move in ellipses, why materials burn, and why salt dissolves in water (if and when it does) when we have a physical theory that provides a causal mechanism. By providing the principles detailing the nature of molecules, the atomic structure of salt and water, the principles of their action, and so on, we can understand combustion and solubility – and other chemical processes. (1)
So what are the generative mechanisms in the social world? Manicas argues that these mechanisms proceed from the actions and relations of social agents:
The foregoing has also argued that persons are the dominant causal agents in society – even while, of course, they work with materials at hand. It follows, accordingly, that in the social sciences, the generative mechanisms of social outcomes are the actions of persons and no further reduction is either plausible or demanded. (75)
So his most general idea about the social world is "social mechanisms as agent-generated causal mechanisms" (2).
If this is the approach we take, then our claims about what is "real" in the social realm will be more modest that some have thought. We will understand that there are real social processes, mechanisms, and powers; that they derive from the actions and agency of actors; and that these processes can be traced out through fairly direct sociological and historical research. And we will understand too that claims about the reality of "capitalism", the world financial system, or fascism are to be understood less weightily than they first appear. Capitalism exists in a time and place; but it is understood to be an ensemble of relations and actions by the people of the time. It is not a "thing" in the way that deoxyribonucleic acid is a thing.
These thoughts should perhaps lead us to consider that the topic of realism is less important in sociology, political science, and economics than it might appear to be. Social scientists have every reason to be realist about the actions, relations, and interactions of individuals. They are justified in thinking that the practices of education and socialization that bring children to adulthood are "real" and can be empirically investigated. And they are justified in observing that there are higher-order configurations of action, power, and social relationship that are "real", insofar as they are present in the activities of the individuals who constitute them and they possess some stable characteristics over time. In other words, social scientists are justified in postulating the social reality of the social processes and institutions that they postulate and investigate. But this is a very weak and qualified conception of realism, and it suggests a fairly weak social ontology.
It will be noted that this conclusion is somewhat in tension with the argument I offered in the prior post on "flat social ontology". That's the virtue and the challenge of open-source philosophy: conclusions and arguments shift over time.
Let me start by asking if you feel like it gives the Fed a bad image to have a conference in an elite place like Jackson Hole. Why not have the conference in, say, a disadvantaged area to send the signal that you care about these problems, to provide some stimulus to the area, etc.?
I am delighted to be here in Jackson Hole in the company of such distinguished panelists and such a distinguished group of participants.
Okay then. Let me start be asking about your view of the economy. How close are we to a full recovery?:
Although the economy has continued to recover and the labor market is approaching our maximum employment objective, inflation has been persistently below 2 percent. That has been especially true recently, as the drop in oil prices over the past year, on the order of about 60 percent, has led directly to lower inflation as it feeds through to lower prices of gasoline and other energy items. As a result, 12-month changes in the overall personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index have recently been only a little above zero (chart 1).
Why are you telling us about headline inflation? What about core inflation? Isn't that what the Fed watches?
...measures of core inflation, which are intended to help us look through such transitory price movements, have also been relatively low (return to chart 1). The PCE index excluding food and energy is up 1.2 percent over the past year. The Dallas Fed's trimmed mean measure of the PCE price index is higher, at 1.6 percent, but still somewhat below our 2 percent objective. Moreover, these measures of core inflation have been persistently below 2 percent throughout the economic recovery. That said, as with total inflation, core inflation can be somewhat variable, especially at frequencies higher than 12-month changes. Moreover, note that core inflation does not entirely "exclude" food and energy, because changes in energy prices affect firms' costs and so can pass into prices of non-energy items.
So are you saying you don't believe the numbers? Why bring up that core inflation is highly variable unless you are trying to de-emphasize this evidence? In any case, isn't there reason to believe these numbers are true, i.e. doesn't the slack in the labor market imply low inflation?
Of course, ongoing economic slack is one reason core inflation has been low. Although the economy has made great progress, we started seven years ago from an unemployment rate of 10 percent, which guaranteed a lengthy period of high unemployment. Even so, with inflation expectations apparently stable, we would have expected the gradual reduction of slack to be associated with less downward price pressure. All else equal, we might therefore have expected both headline and core inflation to be moving up more noticeably toward our 2 percent objective. Yet, we have seen no clear evidence of core inflation moving higher over the past few years. This fact helps drive home an important point: While much evidence points to at least some ongoing role for slack in helping to explain movements in inflation, this influence is typically estimated to be modest in magnitude, and can easily be masked by other factors.
If that's true, if the decline in the slack in the labor market does not translate into a notable change in inflation, why is the Fed so anxious to raise rates based upon the notion that the labor market has almost normalized? Is there more to it than just the labor market?
...core inflation can to some extent be influenced by oil prices. However, a larger effect comes from changes in the exchange value of the dollar, and the rise in the dollar over the past year is an important reason inflation has remained low (chart 4). A higher value of the dollar passes through to lower import prices, which hold down U.S. inflation both because imports make up part of final consumption, and because lower prices for imported components hold down business costs more generally. In addition, a rise in the dollar restrains the growth of aggregate demand and overall economic activity, and so has some effect on inflation through that more indirect channel.
That argues against a rate increase, not for it. Anyway, I interrupted, please continue.
Commodity prices other than oil are also of relevance for inflation in the United States. Prices of metals and other industrial commodities, and agricultural products, are affected to a considerable extent by developments outside the United States, and the softness we've seen in these commodity prices, has in part reflected a slowing of demand from China and elsewhere. These prices likely have also been a factor in holding down inflation in the United States.
So you must believe that all of these forces holding down inflation (many of which are stripped out by core inflation measures, which are also low) that these factors are easing, and hence a spike in inflation is ahead?
The dynamics with which all these factors affect inflation depend crucially on the behavior of inflation expectations. One striking feature of the economic environment is that longer-term inflation expectations in the United States appear to have remained generally stable since the late 1990s (chart 6). ... Expectations that are not stable, but instead follow actual inflation up or down, would allow inflation to drift persistently. In the recent period, movements in inflation have tended to be transitory.
Let's see, lots of factors holding down inflation, longer-term inflation expectations have been stable throughout the recession and recovery, remarkably so, yet the Fed still thinks a rate raise ought to come fairly soon?
We should however be cautious in our assessment that inflation expectations are remaining stable. One reason is that measures of inflation compensation in the market for Treasury securities have moved down somewhat since last summer (chart 7). But these movements can be hard to interpret, as at times they may reflect factors other than inflation expectations, such as changes in demand for the unparalleled liquidity of nominal Treasury securities.
I have to be honest. That sounds like the Fed is really reaching to find a reason to justify worries about inflation and a rate increase. Let me ask this a different way. In the Press Release for the July meeting of the FOMC, the committee said it can be " reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term." Can you explain this please? Why are you "reasonably confident" in light of recent history?
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
Yet when these forces were absent -- they weren't there throughout the crisis -- inflation was still stable. But this time will be different? I guess falling slack in the labor market will make all the difference? More on labor markets in a moment, but let me ask if you have more to say about inflation expectations first.
...with regard to expectations of inflation, it is possible to consult the results of the SEP, the Survey of Economic Projections, which FOMC participants complete shortly before the March, June, September, and December meetings. In the June SEP, the central tendency of FOMC participants' projections for core PCE inflation was 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent this year, 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent next year, and 1.9 percent to 2.0 percent in 2017. There will be a new SEP for the forthcoming September meeting of the FOMC.
Reflecting all these factors, the Committee has indicated in its post-meeting statements that it expects inflation to return to 2 percent. With regard to our degree of confidence in this expectation, we will need to consider all the available information and assess its implications for the economic outlook before coming to a judgment.
You will need to consider all the available information, I agree wholeheartedly with that. I just hope that information includes how poor forecasts like those just cited have been in the past, and the Fed's own eagerness to see "green shoots" again and again, far before it was time for such declarations.
What might deter the Fed from it's intention to raise rates sooner rather than later?
Of course, the FOMC's monetary policy decision is not a mechanical one, based purely on the set of numbers reported in the payroll survey and in our judgment on the degree of confidence members of the committee have about future inflation. We are interested also in aspects of the labor market beyond the simple U-3 measure of unemployment, including for example the rates of unemployment of older workers and of those working part-time for economic reasons; we are interested also in the participation rate. And in the case of the inflation rate we look beyond the rate of increase of PCE prices and define the concept of the core rate of inflation.
I find these kinds of statement difficult to square with the statement that labor markets are almost back to normal. Anyway, what, in particular, will you look at?
While thinking of different aspects of unemployment, we are concerned mainly with trying to find the right measure of the difficulties caused to current and potential participants in the labor force by their unemployment. In the case of the core rate of inflation, we are mainly looking for a good indicator of future inflation, and for better indicators than we have at present.
How do recent events in China change the outlook for policy?
In making our monetary policy decisions, we are interested more in where the U.S. economy is heading than in knowing whence it has come. That is why we need to consider the overall state of the U.S. economy as well as the influence of foreign economies on the U.S. economy as we reach our judgment on whether and how to change monetary policy. That is why we follow economic developments in the rest of the world as well as the United States in reaching our interest rate decisions. At this moment, we are following developments in the Chinese economy and their actual and potential effects on other economies even more closely than usual.
I know you won't answer this directly, but let me try anyway. When will rates go up?
The Fed has, appropriately, responded to the weak economy and low inflation in recent years by taking a highly accommodative policy stance. By committing to foster the movement of inflation toward our 2 percent objective, we are enhancing the credibility of monetary policy and supporting the continued stability of inflation expectations. To do what monetary policy can do towards meeting our goals of maximum employment and price stability, and to ensure that these goals will continue to be met as we move ahead, we will most likely need to proceed cautiously in normalizing the stance of monetary policy. For the purpose of meeting our goals, the entire path of interest rates matters more than the particular timing of the first increase.
As expected, that was pretty boilerplate. When rates do go up, how fast will they rise?
With inflation low, we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace. Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening. Should we judge at some point in time that the economy is threatening to overheat, we will have to move appropriately rapidly to deal with that threat. The same is true should the economy unexpectedly weaken.
The Fed has said again and again that it's 2 percent inflation target is symmetric with respect to errors, i.e. it will get no more worried or upset about, say, a .5 percent overshoot of the target than it will an undershoot of the same magnitude (2.5 percent versus 1.5 percent). However, many of us suspect that the 2 percent target is actually a ceiling, not a central tendency, or that at the very least the errors are not treated symmetrically, and statements such as this do nothing to change that view.
I have quite a few more questions, and I wish we had time to hear your response to the charge that the 2 percent target is functionally a ceiling, but I know you are out of time and need to go, so let me just thank you for talking with us today. Thank you.
Hawkish Rumblings, by Tim Duy: Fedspeak from the Jackson Hole conference suggests that the more hawkish FOMC participants are sticking to their guns. Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank President Loretta Mester, via the Wall Street Journal:
“I want to take the time I have between now and the September meeting to evaluate all the economic information that’s come in, including recent volatility in markets and the reasons behind that,” Ms. Mester said. “But it hasn’t so far changed my basic outlook that the U.S. economy is solid and it could support an increase in interest rates.”
Then there is St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, via Bloomberg:
“The key question for the committee is -- how much would you want to change the outlook based on the volatility that we’ve seen over the last 10 days, and I think the answer to that is going to be: not very much,” Bullard told Bloomberg Television in an interview Friday at the Kansas City Fed’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“You’ve really got the same trajectory that the committee will be looking at that we were looking at before, so why would we change strategy, which was basically to lift off at some point,” said Bullard, who votes on the FOMC next year...
...“The committee does not like to move when there’s volatility,” he said. “If we had the meeting this week, people would probably say let’s wait.”...
...He added, “but the meeting is not this week, it’s Sept. 16 and 17.”
Bullard does not want financial market turmoil to derail his long-supported rate hike. He is hoping all this noise just fades away over the next few weeks. And he wants to open up the October option:
Bullard also said he would support scheduling a press conference following the Oct. 27-28 FOMC meeting if the committee doesn’t raise rates next month. That would make it easier for the Fed to explain a liftoff in October.
Bullard has repeatedly sought a press conference for every meeting, to no avail. I agree with him. The Fed has reinforced the view that major policy shifts are limited to only four of the eight meetings a year. Ridiculous and unnecessary. There should be a press conference at every meeting. That said, they can't now announce a press conference for October because it will be taken as a clear signal of a rate hike on that date. After they get the first hike out of the way, then they should switch to a press conference with every meeting.
Here Bullard disappoints:
“I actually think we’re OK on the inflation front,” Bullard said. “I’ve been arguing that we should get going, because interest rates -- it’s not that we’re a little bit below normal, we’re all the way down at zero, so you’ve got to think about: How is this going to play out over the next two to three years.”
I can remember when Bullard had a reliable view on inflation. When inflation deviates from trend, you act. But the inflation picture is not friendly for hawks and even less so after this morning:
Core-PCE inflation decelerated to a meager 0.87 percent annualized rate in July. The uptick in near-term inflation had provided strong support for a September rate hike as it was consistent with the view that last year's disinflation was temporary. That no longer looks to be the case, pulling apart the argument that the Fed can be confident that inflation will trend back to target. If anything, all the monthly data looks like noise as inflation slowly drifts further and further away from target.
Moreover, I would have thought that Bullard would give more weight to market-based measures:
I believe Bullard is increasingly held by the siren-song of the Neo-Fisherians, thinking the only way to raise inflation is to hike rates. Good luck with that.
Fischer went into this interview with the goal of leaving September open. Via CNBC:
"I think it's early to tell: The change in the circumstances which began with the Chinese devaluation is relatively new and we're still watching how it unfolds, so I wouldn't want to go ahead and decide right now what the case is—more compelling, less compelling, etc.," he said.
Fischer was trying not to tip his hat as much as New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley did on Tuesday. Or even arguably trying to pull back Dudley's comments as they had seemed to close off September. Perhaps more telling, when asked about the PCE numbers, Fischer reiterated his confidence that inflation will trend to target, citing the transitory nature of the oil shock. This is somewhat disappointing given the data and his dovish comments on inflation just two weeks ago. But then again, he couldn't take a dovish stance if his intent was to keep September on that table.
Where does Fischer get his confidence on inflation? A basic Phillips curve story. It is the story that makes a September liftoff compelling. He believes the labor market is near full employment and that you need to move ahead of the inflation curve:
Still, he added that he has not seen "much evidence" of increasing risks to staying at near-zero rates for longer, but he also said he didn't want to wait too long.
"When the case is overwhelming, if you wait that long, you'll be waiting too long," he said. "There's always uncertainty."
The Fed very much wants to ignore the inflation data and follow the labor markets. And even as inflation drifts further away from their target, they keep doubling down on their bets. It's what the Phillips curve is telling them they should do.
Bottom Line: The Fed doesn't want to take September off the table. Many officials had what they believed was a solid case for hiking rates at the next meeting, and they don't want market turmoil to undermine that case. And that case is not complicated. It's the Phillip curve combined with an estimate of full employment (an estimate of full employment that remains sticky despite the persistent downtrend in inflation). If they move in September, that's the story they will run with. They don't have another paradigm.
And the answer, on the Republican side at least, seems to be: with bluster and China-bashing. Nowhere is there a hint that any of the G.O.P. candidates understand the problem, or the steps that might be needed if the world economy hits another pothole.
Take, for example, Scott Walker... So what was his suggestion to President Obama? Why, cancel the planned visit to America by Xi Jinping, China’s leader. That would fix things!
Then there’s Donald Trump,... he simply declared that U.S. markets seem troubled because Mr. Obama has let China “dictate the agenda.” What does that mean? I haven’t a clue — but neither does he.
...According to Mr. Christie, the reason U.S. markets were roiled ... was U.S. budget deficits, which he claims have put us in debt to the Chinese and hence made us vulnerable to their troubles. ... Did the U.S. market plunge because Chinese investors were cutting off credit? Well, no. ...
In fact, talking nonsense about economic crises is essentially a job requirement for anyone hoping to get the Republican presidential nomination.
To understand why, you need to go back to the politics of 2009, when the new Obama administration was trying to cope with the most terrifying crisis since the 1930s. ...Republicans, across the board, predicted disaster. ...
None of it happened. ... Instead, the party’s leading figures kept talking, year after year, as if the disasters they had predicted were actually happening.
Now we’ve had a reminder that something like that last crisis could happen again — which means that we might need a repeat of the policies that helped limit the damage last time. But no Republican dares suggest such a thing.
Instead, even the supposedly sensible candidates call for destructive policies. Thus John Kasich is being portrayed as a different kind of Republican because as governor he approved Medicaid expansion in Ohio, but his signature initiative is a call for a balanced-budget amendment, which would cripple policy in a crisis.
The point is that one side of the political aisle has been utterly determined to learn nothing from the economic experiences of recent years. If one of these candidates ends up in the hot seat the next time crisis strikes, we should be very, very afraid.
In the WSJ, Marco Rubio says Obama hasn't been tough enough with China on economic issues:
President Obama has continued to appease China’s leaders ...[with] his insufficient responses to economic ... concerns
What would he do?
For years, China has subsidized exports, devalued its currency, restricted imports and stolen technology on a massive scale. As president, I would respond not through aggressive retaliation, which would hurt the U.S. as much as China, but by greater commitment and firmer insistence on free markets and free trade. This means immediately moving forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements.
So, unlike Obama, who wants to move forward immediately with the TPP and other trade agreements, he'd move forward immediately with the TPP and other trade agreements.
This September meeting is the gift that keeps on giving. Right now it is giving by the shear quantity of truly bad commentary arguing for a rate hike next month.
Let's back up a few weeks. Prior to the recent market rout, September looked like a pretty good bet. And the basic story that justified that view still holds. It isn't complicated. Just a straight forward Phillips curve story. The economy continues to improve, dragging the labor market along for the ride. Any questions about the meaning of a weak first quarter GDP report were wiped away by the second quarter. Neither is by itself meaningful; the average of 2.5 percent growth for the first half is just about the same as 2014 as a whole. As the labor market approaches full employment, policymakers expect that wage growth will accelerate and they must raise interest rates to prevent those wage gains from translating into above-target inflation. They feel they need to raise rates sooner than later to be ahead of the curve.
That story is not without holes, of course. The lack of widespread faster wage growth or inflationary pressures as the unemployment rate approached the Fed's estimate of full employment should be a red flag. Moreover, measures of labor underutilization remain elevated. Marked-based inflation expectations were low and falling, the dollar was rising, and commodities were tanking. And it seems that the risks of premature exit from ZIRP still outweigh the risk of holding on just a little too long. The Fed staff highlighted this risk in the July FOMC meeting. From the minutes:
The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff's assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.
Despite these questions, Fed policymakers were leaning toward a rate hike in September, at least in my opinion. Fundamentally, they want to start raising rates and had shifted toward looking for reasons to do exactly that. It was never, however, a done deal, at least according to the probabilities assigned by the Fed futures markets. I was fairly confident of a September rate hike, but arguments against were entirely reasonable. I still believe that the Phillips curve story justifies expecting a rate hike in September.
Then I go on a little vacation to visit an old friend, the market starts sliding, culminating is a white-knuckle thousand point drop on the Monday opening. I saw that and came to the same conclusion as fed futures markets. A rate hike probably wasn't happening. That kind of volatility cannot be ignored, and it put the exclamation point on signs that US financial conditions tightened with the end of QE3. We have been around this block before. We know how the story ends.
As a long time Septemberist (Junist, back in the day), I was not pleased.
Many others are not pleased as well, and the commentariat is bringing forth a host of bad reasons to push the Fed into hiking rates in September. One of my favorites comes from Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal, reporting from Jackson Hole:
Raising rates would signal that the Fed is confident about the U.S. economy, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said Wednesday in New York, ahead of the Fed gathering. “That is not only good for the U.S. economy, but also for the world economy, including the Japanese economy,” he said.
Really, the Fed needs to be taking advice from the Bank of Japan? I think you should listen to their advice and do exactly the opposite. Rushing to hike rates never did them any favors. Foreign central banks have anything but the Fed's best interest in mind. Hilsenrath knows this:
When interest rates rise in one country but not another, the currency tends to strengthen in the country where rates go up, because the higher rates offer greater returns on bank deposits and fixed-income investments.
Looser conditions abroad require looser conditions in the US, all else equal, to hold the US economy steady. Foreign central bankers, however, are looking to boost growth off of weaker currencies, and hope the Fed thinks they should just eat the consequences for the US economy. Not. Gonna. Happen.
Another anecdote from Hilsenrath:
“If you delay something that you were planning to do, then you leave the impression that your compass is different than what you led markets to believe,” Jacob Frenkel, chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase International and former head of the Bank of Israel, said in an interview Thursday. Market drama is increased by delay, he added.
No, markets know exactly what the compass is. That's why futures markets reacted so quickly Monday. Because those traders read the FOMC statements:
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.
Monday went well beyond typical volatility. The Fed could justify hiking rates if stocks were moving sideways. Or even drifting downward slowly. But Monday? Monday was something different, something that pointed to some significant fragilities in financial markets. And if you think those fragilities will lessen by higher rates, well that's just delusional.
Lim Say Boon, the chief investment officer for DBS Bank in Singapore, questioned any optimism over maintaining interest rates at their current low level.
“If markets are unhappy about a September rate hike, would they be happy with a December hike?” he wrote in an analyst note on Thursday. “I am not sure what ‘victory’ would look like for those in the market who are ‘rioting’ against a rate hike in September. There is also a risk of the Fed being seen as hostage to an angry mob in the market — cowed because the mob is smashing up the ‘furniture.’ ”
The precedent was the taper. Former Federal Reserve Chairman balked at tapering in September 2013, let markets digest the policy change, and then moved forward in December 2013. No problem. The stuff about "hostage to an angry" mob is code for "my trade is going sideways and I need someone to blame."
Former Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser offers no surprises in these comments:
“I think the Fed needs to be careful and not overreact to short-term events,” Mr. Plosser said. The Fed’s policy committee “should keep the focus on the longer term.”
I would say that Monday shocked the Fed into looking at the longer term, such as the deterioration in inflation expectations, long a favored indicator that fell out of favor because it became
“The less the Fed says about [the selloff] the better, because it creates the impression that monetary policy is responsible for markets, which it’s not,” he said.
Actually, the Fed is responsible for maintaining financial conditions conducive to maximum sustainable growth so, yes, monetary policy is responsible for financial markets. And those markets are how the Fed transmits policy no less. So the Fed can't just say "it's not our problem" because it kind of is their problem.
The Federal Reserve has had many opportunities to raise rates over the last several years and—whether it was because of too many snowstorms, too few jobs, or not enough consumers hitting the malls—the Fed didn't raise. Why? Because it didn't have to. When the unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent in 2013 and 6.5 percent in 2014, many said this was enough cause to finally raise rates off the extraordinary zero bound. The Fed kept moving the goalposts and said: not just yet.
...For those feverishly predicting September vs. December, in terms of timing, you can scratch that concern off the list. The timing on everyone's mind is simply the fear of an additional major market fall. Wouldn't it be great if the Fed had raised rates two years ago, so it would have room to cut in the event that the economy follows the markets into a recession? Now it can't hike because the markets are a mess, and it can't cut because we are already at zero.
Really, everything would be better now if the Fed had been hiking two years ago when unemployment was 6.5%? We needed to choke off growth in 2013? Markets could barely swallow the taper by the end of 2013. In what world does anyone think the economy could have handled any level of rate hikes then that would have provided a realistic cushion now?
...This “Greenspan put” means investing in the stock market is a one-way bet...
...I believe the market selloff has made a September rate hike even more compelling than it was before, because it gives Fed Chair Janet Yellen the opportunity she needs to kill the “Greenspan put” once and for all...
...if supposedly risky investments like corporate equities and bonds are actually guaranteed by the Fed’s “Greenspan put,” then investors aren’t embracing risk at all...
Hmmm...I know plenty of people who don't think that investing in stock markets is a one-way bet. Like all those WorldCom investors. Or more generally anyone caught up in 2000. Or 2008. And apparently Millenials don't trust stocks, so they didn't get the message about the "Greenspan put." So let's end this now: Way too many people have lost way too much money for this supposed "Greenspan put" to be a real thing. It is more code for "my trade is going sideways and I need someone to blame."
Nutting extends his moralizing to Fed officials:
...Officials have been obliquely warning that some stock market valuations are too high to be justified by fundamentals. In truth, the correction in the U.S. markets has been welcomed at the Marriner Eccles Building. The Fed doesn’t mind the dip in the Dow, because it punishes complacency and because the selloff has been relatively orderly. There’s been no panic on Wall Street...
I don't think a guy like Vice Chair Stanley Fisher is sitting around thinking that he needs to take a chunk out of everyone's 401k just to teach them a lesson. OK, so maybe Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George is thinking that, but that would be a minority position.
Hey, it's been a hard couple of weeks. Things changed. That certain rate hike became alot less certain. Maybe that changes back by September 17. Maybe not. All of us Fed watchers probably won't come to agreement until September 16. Getting emotional and moralizing about change isn't going to stop it. I have learned through the years to heed the advice of a fictional financier:
Stocks dropped sharply. It is a clear sign, on top of other signs, that financial conditions are tightening ahead of the Fed, and arguably too much ahead of the Fed. If the Fed heeds that warning you have to remember that's their job. Smoothly functioning financial markets. Lender of last resort. All that stuff. Maybe things work out just fine if they don't heed that warning. I am not interested in taking that risk. Not enough upside for me.
But if they take that risk, it won't be because they want to send the markets a message that they are in charge, or that the "Greenspan put" needs to be put to rest, or that they can't been seen as cowering to the markets, or that they need to stay the course because they already signaled a rate hike, or because foreign central bankers are demanding the Fed hike rates, or because they need to build ammo for the next crisis, or any other reason that comes from barstool moralizing after one too many. If they hike rates it will be for one simple reason: The recent market turmoil does little to shake their faith in the Phillips Curve. That would be the heart of their argument. And if you are arguing for September, that should be the heart of your argument as well.
Rising Anxiety That Stocks Are Overpriced: Over the five trading days between Aug. 17 and Aug. 24, the U.S. stock market dropped 10 percent — the official definition of a “correction,” with similar or greater drops in other countries. ...
But there are reasons to question whether this was a quick, effective slap on the wrist, or if the market is still too overactive, and thus asking for a more extended punishment. ...
It is entirely plausible that the shaking of investor complacency in recent days will, despite intermittent rebounds, take the market down significantly and within a year or two restore CAPE ratios to historical averages. This would put the S. & P. closer to 1,300 from around 1,900 on Wednesday, and the Dow at 11,000 from around 16,000. They could also fall further; the historical average is not a floor.
Or maybe this could be another 1998. We have no statistical proof. We are in a rare and anxious “just don’t know” situation, where the stock market is inherently risky because of unstable investor psychology.
Real gross domestic product -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation's economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes -- increased at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in the second quarter of 2015, according to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP increased 0.6 percent.
The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. In the advance estimate, the increase in real GDP was 2.3 percent. With the second estimate for the second quarter, nonresidential fixed investment and private inventory investment increased. ... [emphasis added]
The day macroeconomics changed: It is of course ludicrous, but who cares. The day of the Boston Fed conference in 1978 is fast taking on a symbolic significance. It is the day that Lucas and Sargent changed how macroeconomics was done. Or, if you are Paul Romer, it is the day that the old guard spurned the ideas of the newcomers, and ensured we had a New Classical revolution in macro rather than a New Classical evolution. Or if you are Ray Fair..., who was at the conference, it is the day that macroeconomics started to go wrong.
Ray Fair is a bit of a hero of mine. ...
I agree with Ray Fair that what he calls Cowles Commission (CC) type models, and I call Structural Econometric Model (SEM) type models, together with the single equation econometric estimation that lies behind them, still have a lot to offer, and that academic macro should not have turned its back on them. Having spent the last fifteen years working with DSGE models, I am more positive about their role than Fair is. Unlike Fair, I want “more bells and whistles on DSGE models”. I also disagree about rational expectations...
Three years ago, when Andy Haldane suggested that DSGE models were partly to blame for the financial crisis, I wrote a post that was critical of Haldane. What I thought then, and continue to believe, is that the Bank had the information and resources to know what was happening to bank leverage, and it should not be using DSGE models as an excuse for not being more public about their concerns at the time.
However, if we broaden this out from the Bank to the wider academic community, I think he has a legitimate point. ...
What about the claim that only internally consistent DSGE models can give reliable policy advice? For another project, I have been rereading an AEJ Macro paper written in 2008 by Chari et al, where they argue that New Keynesian models are not yet useful for policy analysis because they are not properly microfounded. They write “One tradition, which we prefer, is to keep the model very simple, keep the number of parameters small and well-motivated by micro facts, and put up with the reality that such a model neither can nor should fit most aspects of the data. Such a model can still be very useful in clarifying how to think about policy.” That is where you end up if you take a purist view about internal consistency, the Lucas critique and all that. It in essence amounts to the following approach: if I cannot understand something, it is best to assume it does not exist.
Joseph Tracy, Robert Rich, Samuel Kapon, and Ellen Fu say "that roughly 90 percent of the labor gap that opened up following the recession has been closed":
Mind the Gap: Assessing Labor Market Slack, Liberty Street Economics, NY Fed: Indicators of labor market slack enable economists to judge pressures on wages and prices. Direct measures of slack, however, are not available and must be constructed. Here, we build on our previous work using the employment-to-population (E/P) ratio and develop an updated measure of labor market slack based on the behavior of labor compensation. Our measure indicates that roughly 90 percent of the labor gap that opened up following the recession has been closed.
An earlier post, “A Mis-Leading Labor Market Indicator,” argued that the gap between the E/P ratio and a demographically adjusted version of the same ratio is a useful measure of labor market slack. A challenge in constructing this measure is that it requires a normalization (a level shift) to “re-center” the demographically adjusted E/P ratio. In this earlier post, we normalized by assuming that the average labor gap should be zero over a long period of time. Although this approach was easy to implement, it had the disadvantage of not being linked to wage behavior.
To better motivate an E/P-based approach, we turn to Phillips curve models that relate wage growth to labor market slack. The specification we consider relates nominal wage growth to an E/P gap variable (defined as the difference between a demographically adjusted E/P ratio and the actual E/P ratio), as well as expected inflation and trend productivity growth. Expected inflation is subtracted from nominal wage growth to derive an expected real wage growth series, which is then regressed on a constant, the E/P gap, and trend productivity growth. The E/P gap is normalized so that the estimated intercept of the Phillips curve model is set to zero. This approach implies that when the resulting normalized E/P gap is zero, expected real wage growth adjusted for the return to labor productivity is, on average, zero. That is, a labor market with no slack will have nominal wage growth, on average, equal to expected inflation plus a return to labor productivity.
We estimate Phillips curve models for three wage measures: compensation per hour, average hourly earnings, and the employment cost index. We construct four-quarter-ahead growth rates starting in the first quarter of 1982, the earliest start date for which all three measures are available, and ending in the second quarter of 2015. Expected inflation is measured using survey data on ten-year CPI inflation expectations, and trend productivity growth is a twelve-quarter moving average of (annualized) productivity growth rates. Adopting the same approach we took in another post—“U.S. Potential Economic Growth: Is it Improving with Age?”—we have extended the data sample used to estimate the demographically adjusted E/P ratio back to the early 1960s. This provides us with roughly thirteen million observations on individuals that we divide into 280 cohorts based on decade of birth, sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment. For each cohort, we estimate a cohort-specific profile for average employment rates by age that abstracts from cyclical effects. Aggregating these predicted employment rates across individuals produces a demographically adjusted E/P ratio, with the quarterly series derived as an average of the three monthly values.
The three Phillips curve models yield similar normalizations, so we average them instead of selecting one. The chart below shows the actual E/P ratio along with the demographically adjusted E/P ratio based on this new normalization.
The next chart plots the estimated E/P gap (the difference between the two series in the chart above) along with the three expected real wage growth measures adjusted for trend productivity growth. By our definition, a positive E/P gap indicates slack in the labor market. The periods in which the estimated E/P gap is zero line up well with the periods in which our adjusted real wage growth measures are also close to zero. Moreover, periods in which the adjusted wage measures have exceeded zero generally correspond to episodes of tight labor markets (negative E/P gaps), while periods in which the measures are below zero are typically associated with slack in the labor market (positive E/P gaps).
The current normalized E/P gap is estimated to be 32 basis points, which represents an 89 percent reduction from the 283-basis-point gap in November 2010. This finding suggests that the labor market has made considerable progress in its recovery, but is still not yet back to neutral. To gain additional perspective on this finding, we can compare the current gap with those that existed in two earlier tightening episodes. At the time the FOMC began to raise rates in February 1994, the gap was 92 basis points; at the end of that tightening cycle, it was 14 basis points. And when the Committee began to raise rates in June 2004, the gap was -38 basis points; at the end of that tightening cycle, the gap was -125 basis points. To assess labor market slack and understand the behavior of labor compensation in the quarters ahead, it will be particularly important to mind the gap.
Dudley Puts The Kibosh On September, by Tim Duy: Monday's action on Wall Street was too much for the Fed. That day, Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart pulled back his previous dedication to a September rate hike earlier, reverting to only an expectation that rates rise sometimes this year. But today New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley explicitly called September into question. Via the Wall Street Journal:
In light of market volatility and foreign developments, “at this moment, the decision to begin the normalization process at the September [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting seems less compelling to me than it did several weeks ago. But normalization could become more compelling by the time of the meeting as we get additional information” about the state of the economy, he told reporters.
While this comment was sufficiently nuanced to leave open the possibility of September, in reality Dudley pretty much ended the debate. He only reinforced expectations that September was off the table, and time is running out to pull back expectations. Incoming data, what little there is at this point, would need to come in well above expectations to bring September back into play. And that is just mostly like not going to happen.
What about October or December? I tend to think that October is off the table due to a lack of a press conference. Yes, I know the Fed claims every meeting is live, but the reality is that they have reinforced the perception that major policy shifts occur only on meetings with scheduled press conferences. If the Fed wants eight live meetings a year, they need eight press conferences. December remains open with sufficiently strong data, but does the Fed really want to attempt the first rate hike when financial markets are already tight seasonally?
Fundamentally, the problem for the Federal Reserve is that US financial conditions have tightened since the end of the quantitative easing, and will most likely continue to tighten as the rest of the world, notably now China, eases further. In effect, easier policy in the rest of the world requires, all else equal, easier policy in the US as well. Hence this from the FT:
Interest rate futures indicate that investors now see just a 24 per cent chance of a rate increase in September, down from more than 50 per cent earlier this month. The probable path of rate rises in 2016 has also moderated markedly, according to Bloomberg futures data.
The path of rates necessary to maintain stable growth in the US will be lower in response to easing conditions elsewhere. This is something known to bond market participants who as a group have long been more dovish than FOMC participants. But it was the equity market participants that shocked the Fed into the same realization.
To be sure, critics will loudly proclaim that the Fed must hike in September if only to prove they are not governed by the equity markets. That call will be heard in the next FOMC meeting as well, but it will be a minority view. A thousand point drop in the Dow will not be ignored by the majority of the FOMC. Dismissing what are obviously fragile financial market conditions would be a hawkish signal the FOMC does not want to send. Hiking rates is not going to send a calming message of confidence. That never works. If the history of financial crises has taught us anything, it is that failure to respond with easier policy only adds to the turmoil.
Bottom Line: The Fed has long argued that the timing of the first rate hike does not matter. I had thought so as well, but that is clearly no longer the case. A rate hike during a period of substantial financial market turmoil would matter a great deal. It looks like the Fed's plans to raise rate will once again be overtaken by events.
The Future of Macro: There is an interesting set of recent blogs--- Paul Romer 1, Paul Romer 2, Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, and Robert Waldmann---on the history of macro beginning with the 1978 Boston Fed conference, with Lucas and Sargent versus Solow. As Romer notes, I was at this conference and presented a 97-equation model. This model was in the Cowles Commission (CC) tradition, which, as the blogs note, quickly went out of fashion after 1978. (In the blogs, models in the CC tradition are generally called simulation models or structural econometric models or old fashioned models. Below I will call them CC models.)
I will not weigh in on who was responsible for what. Instead, I want to focus on what future direction macro research might take. There is unhappiness in the blogs, to varying degrees, with all three types of models: DSGE, VAR, CC. Also, Wren-Lewis points out that while other areas of economics have become more empirical over time, macroeconomics has become less. The aim is for internal theoretical consistency rather than the ability to track the data.
I am one of the few academics who has continued to work with CC models. They were rejected for basically three reasons: they do not assume rational expectations (RE), they are not identified, and the theory behind them is ad hoc. This sounds serious, but I think it is in fact not. ...
So my suggestion for future macro research is not more bells and whistles on DSGE models, but work specifying and estimating stochastic equations in the CC tradition. Alternative theories can be tested and hopefully progress can be made on building models that explain the data well. We have much more data now and better techniques than we did in 1978, and we should be able to make progress and bring macroeconomics back to it empirical roots.
It’s Getting Tighter: When thinking about the market madness and its possible real effects, here’s something you — where by “you” I mean the Fed in particular — really, really need to keep in mind: the markets have already, in effect, tightened monetary conditions quite a lot.
First of all, if break-evens (the difference between interest rates on ordinary bonds and inflation-protected bonds) are any guide, inflation expectations have fallen sharply...
Second, while interest rates on Treasuries are down, rates on private securities viewed as even moderately risky are up quite a lot...
So real borrowing costs are up sharply for many private borrowers. This is a significant headwind for the U.S. economy, which was hardly growing like gangbusters in any case.
A Fed hike now looks like an even worse idea than it did a few days ago.
John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity: John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was trained as an economist, but in books like The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), his found his metier as a social critic. In these books and voluminous other writings, Galbraith didn't propose well-articulated economic theories, and carry out systematic empirical tests, but instead offered big-picture perspectives of the economy and society of his time. His policy advice was grindingly predictable: big and bigger doses of progressive liberalism, what he sometimes called "new socialism."
Here, I come not to quarrel with Galbraith's economics, but to praise him as one of the finest writers on economics and social science topics it has ever been my pleasure to read. I take as my text his essay on "Writing, Typing, and Economics," which appeared in the March 1978 issue of The Atlantic and which I recently rediscovered. Here are some highlights:
"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand — are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same. ..."
"My advice to those eager students in California would be, "Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse." I would also warn against the flocking tendency of writers and its use as a cover for idleness. It helps greatly in the avoidance of work to be in the company of others who are also waiting for the golden moment. The best place to write is by yourself, because writing becomes an escape from the terrible boredom of your own personality. It's the reason that for years I've favored Switzerland, where I look at the telephone and yearn to hear it ring. ..."
"There may be inspired writers for whom the first draft is just right. But anyone who is not certifiably a Milton had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: Writing is difficult work. Ralph Paine, who managed Fortune in my time, used to say that anyone who said writing was easy was either a bad writer or an unregenerate liar. Thinking, as Voltaire avowed, is also a very tedious thing which men—or women—will do anything to avoid. So all first drafts are deeply flawed by the need to combine composition with thought. Each later draft is less demanding in this regard. Hence the writing can be better. There does come a time when revision is for the sake of change—when one has become so bored with the words that anything that is different looks better. But even then it may be better. ..."
"Next, I would want to tell my students of a point strongly pressed, if my memory serves, by Shaw. He once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. ..."
"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult. Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.
"Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger."
Stefania Albanesi, Claudia Olivetti, and Maria Prados at the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics:
Incentive Pay and Gender Compensation Gaps for Top Executives: The persistence of a gender gap in wages is shaping the debate over women’s equality in the workplace and underscores the challenge facing policymakers as they consider their potential role in closing it. While the disparity affects females at all income levels, women in professional and managerial occupations tend to experience greater gender-pay differences than those in working-class jobs. The rise in the use of incentive pay, which has been linked to the growth of income inequality (Lemieux, MacLeod, and Parent), might have contributed to the gender gap in earnings (Albanesi and Olivetti). In this post, which is based on our related New York Fed staff report, we document three new facts about gender differences in the structure of executive compensation.
Evidence on Gender Differences in Executive Pay
Our research focuses on the top five executives by title in public companies (chair/chief executive officer (CEO), vice chair, president, chief financial officer, and chief operating officer) in Standard and Poor’s ExecuComp database between 1992 and 2005. Only 3.2 percent of people in these roles are women.
Fact 1: Female executives receive a lower share of incentive pay in total compensation than males. This difference accounts for 93 percent of the unconditional gender gap in total pay. ...
Fact 2: Compensation of female executives is less sensitive to firm performance than males’. For example, a $1 million increase in firm value generates a $17,150 increase in firm-specific wealth for male executives but only a $1,670 increase for females. For each 1 percent increase in firm market value, compensation rises by $60,000 for men and only $10,000 for women. ...
Fact 3: Compensation of female executives is more exposed to declines in firm value and less exposed to increases in firm value than males’. We find that a 1 percent rise in firm value is associated with a 13 percent rise in firm-specific wealth for female executives and a 44 percent rise for male executives. Conversely, a 1 percent decline in firm value is associated with a 63 percent decline in firm-specific wealth for female executives and a 33 percent decline for males. ...
Are these gender differences in compensation efficient?
Surveys of professionals and executives, time-use studies, and experimental and psychological studies suggest that:
Exclusion from informal networks, gender stereotyping, and lack of role models are perceived as substantial barriers to career advancements for female executives.
Married female professionals bear a disproportionately large share of childcare responsibilities relative to married men in similar circumstances.
Women display lower propensity to enter into competitive environments.
Women display lower propensity to initiate negotiations.
Women exhibit higher risk aversion.
Based on the efficient paradigm of the pay-setting process, these gender differences in barriers to career advancement and preferences are consistent with Facts 1 and 2, but they would imply lower performance for firms headed by females, an outcome for which we find no evidence in our data. Moreover, this framework cannot explain Fact 3.
We find instead that the gender differences in pay and pay-performance sensitivity are consistent with the “skimming” or “managerial power” view of executive compensation. According to this theory, board members are captive to executives, who use that position to influence their compensation packages in a way that increases their average pay and undermines incentives. In this scenario, the goal of the executive is to prevent pay from falling when firm performance deteriorates and to boost pay when the company is doing well. However, as we document in our paper, top female executives are less entrenched than their male counterparts, since they are usually younger, with fewer years of tenure and weaker networks. Thus, they are more limited than male executives in their ability to control their own compensation.
Our analysis suggests that performance pay schemes should be held to closer scrutiny. Increasing transparency about an executive’s compensation, both in absolute terms and relative to counterparts’, might mitigate gender-pay inequality for top executives. A recent Securities and Exchange Commission ruling that says that companies have to disclose whether executive pay is in line with the company’s financial performance seems to be a good step in this direction.
Our findings also raise concern about the standing of all professional women as incentive pay schemes proliferate outside the executive ranks. The failure of the efficient contracting paradigm to explain the gender differences in the structure of executive compensation points to possible distortions in the link between pay and performance. To the extent that performance pay amplifies earnings differentials resulting from actual or perceived differences in attributes between workers, it can exacerbate inequality and can severely distort the allocation of resources, if designed incorrectly.
The Politics of Income Inequality: f the policies favored by some Republicans seeking the nomination for president turned into reality, we’d roll back or eliminate our social insurance programs, cut taxes on the wealthy, cut spending even more to slash the deficit, and turn health care over to the private sector.
The “you’re on your own no matter what bad luck comes your way” society is a desirable outcome according to this view because it creates the correct incentives for people to be gainfully employed and take care of themselves. Never mind that history shows many people won’t prepare for retirement, purchase health care, set aside funds in case of job loss, and so on unless they are forced to do so by government programs, and will thus then end up being an even bigger burden to the rest of society, Those who support these policies appear to believe that this time will somehow be different.
Stupid China Stories: So a stock crash in China triggered a big decline around the world..., why should events in China matter for the rest of us?
Well, you and I might think that it’s because China is a pretty big economy... So when China slumps, you can and should expect knock-on effects elsewhere.
But trust the Republican field to declare that it’s all Obama’s fault. Scott Walker wants Obama to cancel a state dinner with Xi; Donald Trump says that it’s because Obama has let China “dictate the agenda” (no, I have no idea what he thinks he means). And Chris Christie says that it’s because Obama has gotten us deep into China’s debt.
Actually, let’s play a bit with that last one, OK? You could, conceivably, tell a story in which America becomes dependent on Chinese loans; then, when China gets in trouble, it demands repayment, pushing us into crisis too. But any story along those lines has a corollary: we should be seeing a spike in US interest rates as our credit line gets pulled. What you actually see is falling rates: ...
Nothing particularly surprising here -- the Great recession was unusually severe and unusually long, and hence had unusual impacts, but it's good to have numbers characterizing what happened:
Great Recession Job Losses Severe, Enduring: Of those who lost full-time jobs between 2007 and 2009, only about 50 percent were employed in January 2010 and only about 75 percent of those were re-employed in full-time jobs.
The economic downturn that began in December 2007 was associated with a rapid rise in unemployment and with an especially pronounced increase in the number of long-term unemployed. In "Job Loss in the Great Recession and its Aftermath: U.S. Evidence from the Displaced Workers Survey" (NBER Working Paper No. 21216), Henry S. Farber uses data from the Displaced Workers Survey (DWS) from 1984-2014 to study labor market dynamics. From these data he calculates both the short-term and medium-term effects of the Great Recession's sharply elevated rate of job losses. He concludes that these effects have been particularly severe.
Of the workers who lost full-time jobs between 2007 and 2009, Farber reports, only about 50 percent were employed in January 2010 and only about 75 percent of those were re-employed in full-time jobs. This means only about 35 to 40 percent of those in the DWS who reported losing a job in 2007-09 were employed full-time in January 2010. This was by far the worst post-displacement employment experience of the 1981-2014 period.
The adverse employment experience of job losers has also been persistent. While both overall employment rates and full-time employment rates began to improve in 2009, even those who lost jobs between 2011 and 2013 had very low re-employment rates and, by historical standards, very low full-time employment rates.
In addition, the data show substantial weekly earnings declines even for those who did find work, although these earnings losses were not especially large by historical standards. Farber suggests that the earnings decline measure from the DWS is appropriate for understanding how job loss affects the earnings that a full-time-employed former job-loser is able to command.
The author notes that the measures on which he focuses may understate the true economic cost of job loss, since they do not consider the value of time spent unemployed or the value of lost health insurance and pension benefits.
Farber concludes that the costs of job losses in the Great Recession were unusually severe and remain substantial years later. Most importantly, workers laid off in the Great Recession and its aftermath have been much less successful at finding new jobs, particularly full-time jobs, than those laid off in earlier periods. The findings suggest that job loss since the Great Recession has had severe adverse consequences for employment and earnings.
Disparities in youth outcomes in the United States are striking. For example, among 15-to-24 year olds, the male homicide rate in 2013 was 18 times higher for blacks than for whites. Black males lose more years of potential life before age 65 to homicide than to heart disease, America's leading overall killer. A large body of research emphasizes that, beyond institutional factors, choices and behavior contribute to these outcomes. Those choices include decisions around dropping out of high school, involvement with drugs or gangs, and how to respond to confrontations that could escalate to serious violence.
In "Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago" (NBER Working Paper No. 21178), authors Sara B. Heller, Anuj K. Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold A. Pollack explain these behavioral differences using the psychology of automaticity. Because it is mentally costly to think through every situation in detail, all of us have automatic responses to some of the situations we encounter. These responses—automaticity—are tuned to situations we commonly face.
The authors present results from three large-scale, randomized experimental studies carried out in Chicago with economically disadvantaged male youth. All three experiments show sizable behavioral responses to fairly short-duration, automaticity-reducing interventions that get youths to slow down and behave less automatically in high-stakes situations.
The first intervention (called Becoming a Man, or BAM, developed by Chicago-area nonprofit Youth Guidance) involved 2,740 males in the 7th through 10th grades in 18 public schools on the south and west sides of the city. Some youths were offered an automaticity-reducing program once a week during school or an after-school sports intervention developed by Chicago nonprofit World Sport Chicago. The authors find that participation in the programming reduced arrests over the program year for violent crimes by 44 percent, and non-violent, non-property, non-drug crimes by 36 percent. Participation also increased engagement with school, which the authors estimate could translate into gains in graduation rates of between 7 and 22 percent.
A second study of BAM randomly assigned 2,064 male 9th and 10th graders within nine Chicago public high schools to the treatment or to a control condition. The authors found that arrests of youth in the treatment group were 31 percent lower than arrests in the control group.
The third intervention was delivered by trained detention staff to high-risk juveniles housed in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The curriculum in this program, while different from the first two interventions, also focused on reducing automaticity. Some 5,728 males were randomly assigned to units inside the facility that did or did not implement the program. The authors found that those who received programming were about 16 percent less likely to be returned to the detention center than those who did not.
The sizable impacts the authors observe from all three interventions stand in stark contrast to the poor record of many efforts to improve the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youths. As with all randomized experiments, there is the question of whether these impacts generalize to other samples and settings. The interventions considered in this study would not be costly to expand. The authors estimate that the cost of the intervention for each participant in the first two studies was between $1,178 and $2,000. In the third case, the per-participant cost was about $60 per juvenile detainee. The results suggest that expanding these programs may be more cost-effective than other crime-prevention strategies that target younger individuals.
The authors also present results from various survey measures suggesting the results do not appear to be due to changes in mechanisms like emotional intelligence or self-control. On the other hand results from some decision-making exercises the authors carried out seem to support reduced automaticity as a key mechanism. The results overall suggest that automaticity can be an important explanation for disparities in outcomes.
Still, investors are clearly jittery..., the world as a whole still seems remarkably accident-prone. ... But why does the world economy keep stumbling? ...
More than a decade ago, Ben Bernanke famously argued that a ballooning U.S. trade deficit was the result, not of domestic factors, but of a “global saving glut”: a huge excess of savings over investment in China and other developing nations... He worried a bit about the fact that the inflow of capital was being channeled, not into business investment, but into housing; obviously he should have worried much more. ...
Of course, the boom became a bubble, which inflicted immense damage when it burst. Furthermore, that wasn’t the end of the story. There was also a flood of capital from Germany and other northern European countries to Spain, Portugal, and Greece. This too turned out to be a bubble, and the bursting of that bubble in 2009-2010 precipitated the euro crisis.
And still the story wasn’t over. With America and Europe no longer attractive destinations, the global glut went looking for new bubbles to inflate. It found them in emerging markets... It couldn’t last, and now we’re in the middle of an emerging-market crisis...
So where does the moving finger of glut go now? Why, back to America, where a fresh inflow of foreign funds has driven the dollar way up, threatening to make our industry uncompetitive again
What’s ... important now is that policy makers take seriously the possibility, I’d say probability, that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.
My sense is that there’s a deep-seated unwillingness, even among sophisticated officials, to accept this reality. Partly this is about special interests: Wall Street doesn’t want to hear that an unstable world requires strong financial regulation, and politicians who want to kill the welfare state don’t want to hear that government spending and debt aren’t problems in the current environment.
But there’s also, I believe, a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats alike want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices — choices like cutting popular programs and raising interest rates. They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse. But we are, and they will.
Larry Summers says "Raising rates this year will threaten all of the central bank’s major objectives":
The Fed looks set to make a dangerous mistake: Will the Federal Reserve’s September meeting see US interest rates go up for the first time since 2006? Officials have held out the prospect that ... rates will probably be increased... Conditions could change... But ... raising rates ... would be a serious error that would threaten all three of the Fed’s major objectives— price stability, full employment and financial stability.
Like most major central banks, the Fed has ... a 2 per cent inflation target. The biggest risk is that inflation will be lower than this — a risk that would be exacerbated by tightening policy... Tightening policy will adversely affect employment levels... Higher interest rates will also increase the value of the dollar, making US producers less competitive... This is especially troubling at a time of rising inequality. Studies ... make it clear that the best social program for disadvantaged workers is an economy where employers are struggling to fill vacancies.
There may have been a financial stability case for raising rates six or nine months ago, as low interest rates were encouraging investors to take more risks... That debate is now moot. With credit becoming more expensive, the outlook for the Chinese economy clouded at best, emerging markets submerging, the US stock market in a correction, widespread concerns about liquidity, and expected volatility having increased at a near-record rate, markets are themselves dampening any euphoria or overconfidence. The Fed does not have to do the job. ...
It is no longer easy to think of economic conditions that can plausibly be seen as temporary headwinds. ... This is the “secular stagnation” diagnosis...
New conditions require new policies. There is much that should be done, such as steps to promote public and private investment so as to raise the level of real interest rates consistent with full employment. Unless these new policies are implemented, inflation sharply accelerates, or euphoria in markets breaks out, there is no case for the Fed to adjust policy interest rates.
...Q: What kind of feedback have you received from colleagues in the profession?
A: I tried these ideas on a few people, and the reaction I basically got was “don’t make waves.” As people have had time to react, I’ve been hearing a bit more from people who appreciate me bringing these issues to the forefront. The most interesting feedback is from young economists who say that they feel that they have to be very cautious, and they don’t want to get somebody cross at them. There’s a concern by young economists that if they deviate from what’s acceptable, they’ll get in trouble. That also seemed to me to be a sign of something that is really wrong. Young people are the ones who often come in and say, “You all have been thinking about this the wrong way, here’s a better way to think about it.”
Q: Are there any areas where research or refinements in methodology have brought us closer to understanding the economy?
A: There was an interesting  Nobel prize in [economics], where they gave the prize to people who generally came to very different conclusions about how financial markets work. Gene Fama ... got it for the efficient markets hypothesis. Robert Shiller ... for this view that these markets are not efficient...
It was striking because usually when you give a prize, it’s because in the sciences, you’ve converged to a consensus. ...
Did socialism keep capitalism equal?: This is an interesting idea and I think that it will gradually become more popular. The idea is simple: the presence of the ideology of socialism (abolition of private property) and its embodiment in the Soviet Union and other Communist states made capitalists careful: they knew that if they tried to push workers too hard, the workers might retaliate and capitalists might end up by losing all.
Now, this idea comes from the fact that rich capitalist countries experienced an extraordinary period of decreasing inequality from around 1920s to 1980s, and then since the 1980s, contradicting what a simple Kuznets curve would imply, inequality went up. It so happens that the turning point in 1980s coincides with (1) acceleration of skill-biased technological progress, (2) increased globalization and entry of Chinese workers into the global labor market, (3) pro-rich policy changes (lower taxes), (4) decline of the trade unions, and (5) end of Communism as an ideology. So each of these five factors can be used to explain the increase in inequality in rich capitalist countries.
The socialist story recently received a boost from two papers. ...
I am not sure that this particular story can alone explain the decline in inequality in the West, and certainly it is a story that one hears less often in the US than in Europe, as the United States believed itself to be sufficiently protected from the Communist virus (although when you look at the repression in the 1920s and McCarthyism in the 1950s, one is not so sure). But even Solow’s recent mention of the changing power relations between capitalists and workers (the end of the Detroit treaty) as ushering in the period of rising inequality is not inconsistent with this view. In a recent conversation, and totally unaware of the literature, an Italian high-level diplomat explained to me why inequality in Italy increased recently: “in then 1970s, capitalists were afraid of the Italian Communist Party”. So there is, I think, something in the ... story.
The implication is of course rather unpleasant: left to itself, without any countervailing powers, capitalism will keep on generating high inequality and so the US may soon look like South Africa. That’s where I think differently: I think there are, in the longer-term, forces that would lead toward reduction in inequality (and that would not be the return of Communism).
This is part of the introduction to an essay by Mike Konczal on how to "insure people against the hardships of life..., accident, illness, old age, and loss of a job." Should we rely mostly upon government social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security, or would a system that relies upon private charity be better? History provides a very clear answer:
The Voluntarism Fantasy: Ideology is as much about understanding the past as shaping the future. And conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies. This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again.
This vision has always been implicit in the conservative ascendancy. It existed in the 1980s, when President Reagan announced, “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern,” and called for voluntarism to fill in the yawning gaps in the social safety net. It was made explicit in the 1990s, notably through Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, a treatise hailed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, which argued that a purely private nineteenth-century system of charitable and voluntary organizations did a better job providing for the common good than the twentieth-century welfare state. This idea is also the basis of Paul Ryan’s budget, which seeks to devolve and shrink the federal government at a rapid pace, lest the safety net turn “into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” It’s what Utah Senator Mike Lee references when he says that the “alternative to big government is not small government” but instead “a voluntary civil society.” As conservatives face the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority fueled by changing demographics, they understand that time is running out on their cherished project to dismantle the federal welfare state.
But this conservative vision of social insurance is wrong. It’s incorrect as a matter of history; it ignores the complex interaction between public and private social insurance that has always existed in the United States. It completely misses why the old system collapsed and why a new one was put in its place. It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. Most importantly, it points us in the wrong direction. The last 30 years have seen effort after effort to try and push the policy agenda away from the state’s capabilities and toward private mechanisms for mitigating the risks we face in the world. This effort is exhausted, and future endeavors will require a greater, not lesser, role for the public. ...
The state does many things, but this essay will focus specifically on its role in providing social insurance against the risks we face. Specifically, we’ll look at what the progressive economist and actuary I.M. Rubinow described in 1934 as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job. These are the four horsemen that ride roughshod over lives and fortunes of millions of wage workers of every modern industrial community.” These were the same evils that Truman singled out in his speech. And these are the ills that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance, and our other public systems of social insurance set out to combat in the New Deal and Great Society.
Over the past 30 years the public role in social insurance has taken a backseat to the idea that private institutions will expand to cover these risks. Yet our current system of workplace private insurance is rapidly falling apart. In its wake, we’ll need to make a choice between an expanded role for the state or a fantasy of voluntary protection instead. We need to understand why this voluntary system didn’t work in the first place to make the case for the state’s role in fighting the Four Horsemen. ...
John Robertson, writing at the Atlanta Fed's Macroblog, on evidence for wage stickiness:
No Wage Change?: Even when prevailing market wages are lower, businesses can find it difficult to reduce wages for their current employees. This phenomenon, often referred to as "downward nominal wage rigidity," can result in rising average wages for incumbent workers despite high unemployment levels. Some economic models predict that a period of subdued wage growth can follow, even as the labor market recovers—a kind of delayed wage-adjustment effect.
In her 2014 Jackson Hole speech, Fed Chair Janet Yellen suggested this effect may explain sluggish growth in average wages in recent years, despite significant declines in the rate of unemployment.
This macroblog post looks at evidence of wage rigidity, particularly a spike in the frequency of zero wage changes relative to wage declines. A comparison is made between hourly and weekly wages and between incumbent workers (job stayers) and those who have changed employers (job switchers).
Chart 1 shows the fractions of job stayers reporting the same or a lower hourly or weekly wage than 12 months earlier. These measures are constructed from the Current Population Survey microdata in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker. They include workers who are paid hourly (accounting for about 60 percent of all wage and salary earners). The measures exclude those who usually receive overtime and other supplemental pay and those with imputed or top-coded (redacted) wages. Weekly wage is defined as the hourly wage times the usual number of hours per week worked at that rate. The data are aggregated to an annual frequency (except for 2015, where the first six months of the year are covered).
Job stayers cannot be exactly identified in the data and are approximated by those who are in the same occupation and industry as they were 12 months earlier and the same job as they were in the prior month. Consistent with other studies (see, for example, the work of our colleagues at the San Francisco Fed), we find that the incidence of unchanged hourly wages among job stayers is substantial (although some of this is probably the result of rounding errors in self-reported wages). The measured share of unchanged hourly wages rose disproportionately between 2008 and 2010, and it has remained elevated since. Zero hourly wage changes (the green line in chart 1) have become almost as common as declines in hourly wages (the blue line in chart 1).
Chart 1 also suggests that weekly wages for job stayers show a pattern over time broadly similar to hourly wages. But the fraction of unchanged weekly wages (the purple line in chart 1) is lower. Each year, about 60 percent of those with no change in their hourly wage had no change in their weekly wage (or hours) either. Also, there are relatively more declines in weekly wages (the orange line in chart 1) than in hourly wages—mostly the result of reduced hours worked. On average, a reduction in weekly wages is associated with a four-hour decline in hours worked per week. About 90 percent of those with lower hourly wages also had lower weekly wages, and 20 percent of those with no change in their hourly wage had a lower weekly wage (working fewer hours).
If job stayers show a relatively high incidence of no wage change, we might expect a different story for job switchers, since they are establishing a new wage contract with a new employer. Chart 2 shows the fraction of job switchers reporting the same or a lower hourly or weekly wage than 12 months earlier. Job switchers are approximated by workers who are in a different industry than a year earlier.
Not surprisingly, a smaller share of workers experience no change in their hourly or weekly wage when switching jobs. But the pattern of zero wage change for job switchers over time is generally similar to that of job stayers. It is also true that a decline in hourly and weekly wages is more likely for job switchers than for job stayers, with a significant temporary spike in the relative frequency of wage declines for job switchers during the last recession.
Taken at face value, this analysis suggests the presence of some amount of wage rigidity. Also, rigidity increases during recessions and has remained quite elevated since the end of the last recession—especially for job stayers. The question then becomes whether this phenomenon has important macroeconomic consequences. A prediction of most models in which wage stickiness has allocative effects is that it causes firms to increase layoffs when faced with a decline in aggregate demand. Interestingly, during the last recession—when wage stickiness appears to have increased substantially—the rate of layoffs was not unusually high relative to earlier recessions. What was atypical was the size of the decline in the rate of job creation, and this decline contributed to unusually long unemployment spells. As noted by Elsby, Shin, and Solon (2014), it is not clear that an increase in wage rigidity would constrain the hiring of new workers more than it constrains the retention of existing workers.
On the other hand, persistently high wage rigidity in the wake of the Great Recession is consistent with the relatively sluggish pace of wage increases seen in most measures of aggregate wage growth via the "bending" of the short-run Phillips curve (as described by Daly and Hobijn (2014)). Interestingly, the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker is an exception. It has indicated somewhat stronger wage growth during the last year than other measures. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues in coming months.
John Whitehead responds to those who say the solution to water problems is to "allow free markets to operate":
...The water market will never be a "free market" in the true sense of the word. A plea to the water authority (i.e., government) to price water more rationally is a plea for policy reform ... towards a better use of incentives. Free markets only exist when there is no government regulation of buyers and sellers, no taxes, no subsidies and no nothing. An efficient free market for water is a difficult thing to pull off since it is a common-pool resource. It is easier for the pizza market to operate efficiently since pizza is a private good.
I don't think adaption to climate change can be accomplished efficiently by government taking a hands off approach. You can't privatize much of the natural environment. ...
Paul Romer's latest entry on "mathiness" in economics ends with:
Reactions to Solow’s Choice: ...Politics maps directly onto our innate moral machinery. Faced with any disagreement, our moral systems respond by classifying people into our in-group and the out-group. They encourage us to be loyal to members of the in-group and hostile to members of the out-group. The leaders of an in-group demand deference and respect. In selecting leaders, we prize unwavering conviction.
Science can’t function with the personalization of disagreement that these reactions encourage. The question of whether Joan Robinson is someone who is admired and respected as a scientist has to be separated from the question about whether she was right that economists could reason about rates of return in a model that does not have an explicit time dimension.
The only in-group versus out-group distinction that matters in science is the one that distinguishes people who can live by the norms of science from those who cannot. Feynman integrity is the marker of an insider.
In this group, it is flexibility that commands respect, not unwavering conviction. Clearly articulated disagreement is encouraged. Anyone’s claim is subject to challenge. Someone who is right about A can be wrong about B.
Scientists do not demonize dissenters. Nor do they worship heroes.
[The reference to Joan Robinson is clarified in the full text.]
I know that may sound crazy. After all, we’ve spent much of the past five or six years in a state of fiscal panic, with all the Very Serious People declaring that we must slash deficits and reduce debt now now now or we’ll turn into Greece, Greece I tell you.
But the power of the deficit scolds was always a triumph of ideology over evidence, and a growing number of genuinely serious people ... are making the case that we need more, not less, government debt.
One answer is that ... the United States suffers from obvious deficiencies in roads, rails, water systems and more; meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at historically low interest rates. So this is a very good time to be borrowing and investing in the future...
Beyond that..., the debt of stable, reliable governments provides “safe assets” that help investors manage risks, make transactions easier and avoid a destructive scramble for cash. ...
And... When interest rates on government debt are very low even when the economy is strong, there’s not much room to cut them when the economy is weak, making it much harder to fight recessions. There may also be consequences for financial stability: Very low returns on safe assets may push investors into too much risk-taking...
What can be done? Simply raising interest rates, as some financial types keep demanding (with an eye on their own bottom lines), would undermine our still-fragile recovery. What we need are policies that would permit higher rates in good times without causing a slump. And one such policy ... would be targeting a higher level of debt.
In other words, the great debt panic ... was even more wrongheaded than those of us in the anti-austerity camp realized.
Not only were governments that listened to the fiscal scolds kicking the economy when it was down, prolonging the slump; not only were they slashing public investment at the very moment bond investors were practically pleading with them to spend more; they may have been setting us up for future crises.
And the ironic thing is that these foolish policies, and all the human suffering they created, were sold with appeals to prudence and fiscal responsibility.
One theme that I found especially intriguing in the Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth argument is how some of our social attitudes about what constitutes a "good job" have nearly gone full circle in the last couple of centuries. Back at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and into the 19th century, it was common to hear arguments that the shift from farms, artisans, and home production into factories involved a reduction in the quality of work. But in recent decades, a shift away from factories and back toward decentralized production is sometimes viewed as a decline in the quality of work, too. Here are some examples:
For example, one concern from the time of the original Industrial Revolution was that factory work required scheduling their time in ways that removed flexibility. Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth (citations omitted) note: "Workers who were “considerably dissatisfied, because they could not go in and out as they pleased” had to be habituated into the factory system, by means of fines, locked gates, and other penalties. The preindustrial domestic system, by contrast, allowed a much greater degree of flexibility."
Another type of flexibility in the time before the Industrial Revolution is that people often had the flexibility to combine their work life with their home life, and the separation of the two was thought be worrisome: "Part of the loss of control in moving to factory work involved the physical separation of home from place of work. While today people worry about the exact opposite phenomenon with the lines between spheres of home and work blurring, this disjunction was originally a cause of great anxiety, along with the separation of place-of-work from place-of-leisure. Preindustrial societies had “no clearly defined periods of leisure as such, but economic activities, like hunting or market-going, obviously have their recreational aspects, as do singing or telling stories at work.”
Of course, some common modern concerns about the quality of jobs is that many jobs lack regular hours. Many workers may face irregular hours, or no assurance of a minimum number of hours they can work. Moreover, many jobs now worry that work life is intruding back into home life, because we are hooked to our jobs by our computers and phones. ...
Another a fairly common theme of economists writing back in the 18th and 19th centuries ranging from Adam Smith to Karl Marx was that the new factor jobs treated people as if they were cogs in a machine. ...
Now, of course, there is widespread concern about a lack of factory jobs for low- and middle-skilled workers. Rather than worrying about these jobs being debasing or unfit for humans, we worry that there aren't enough of them.
I guess one reaction to this evolution of attitudes about "good jobs" is just to point out that workers and employers are both heterogenous groups. Some workers put a greater emphasis on flexibility of hours, while others might prefer regularity. Some workers prefer a straightforward job that they can leave behind at the end of the day; others prefer a job that is full of improvisation, learning on the fly, crises, and deadlines. To some extent, the labor market lets employers and workers match up as they desire. There's certainly no reason to assume that a "good job" should be a one-size-fits-all definition.
A second reaction is that there is clearly a kind of rosy-eyed nostalgia at work about the qualities of jobs of the past. Many of us tend to focus on a relatively small number of past jobs, not the jobs that most people did most of the time. In addition, we focus on a few characteristics of those jobs, not the way the jobs were actually experienced by workers of that time.
But yet another reaction is that the qualities of available jobs aren't just a matter of negotiation between workers and employers, and they aren't an historical inevitability. The qualities of the range of jobs in an economy are afffected by a range of institutions and factors like the human capital that workers bring to jobs, the extent of on-the-job training, how easy it is for someone with a series or employers or irregular hours to set up health insurance or a retirement account, rules about workplace safety, rules that impose costs on laying off or firing workers (which inevitably makes firms reluctant to hire more regular employees), the extent and type of union representation, rules about wages and overtime, and much more. I do worry that career-type jobs offering the possibility of longer-term connectedness between a worker and an employer seem harder to come by. In a career-type job, both the worker and employer place some value on the expected continuance of their relationship over time, and act and invest resources accordingly.
FOMC Minutes Give No Clear Signal, by Tim Duy: The FOMC minutes from the July 28-29 FOMC meeting were released today. Arguably they are stale. Arguably they have been overtaken by events. And because the Fed has been very good about not signaling their exact intentions, arguably you can read anything into them you want. If you want to take a hawkish view, I think you focus on this and similar portions of the minutes:
During their discussion of economic conditions and monetary policy, participants mentioned a number of considerations associated with the timing and pace of policy normalization. Most judged that the conditions for policy firming had not yet been achieved, but they noted that conditions were approaching that point. Participants observed that the labor market had improved notably since early this year, but many saw scope for some further improvement. Many participants indicated that their outlook for sustained economic growth and further improvement in labor markets was key in supporting their expectation that inflation would move up to the Committee's 2 percent objective, and that they would be looking for evidence that the economic outlook was evolving as they anticipated.
When considering a rate hike, "many" participants were willing to dismiss current low inflation if they believe evidence of stronger growth supports their conviction that inflation would trend toward target over time. The data since the July meeting tends to support that view. July retail sales were healthy, and revisions to previous months points toward upward revisions to second quarter GDP growth to 3.0 percent or higher. Industrial production was higher, perhaps starting to move past the declines related to the sharp drop in oil prices. Single family housing starts continued their slow but steady rise, reaching a level last seen in 2007. Homebuilder confidence is up. While manufacturing has been soft, the service sector as measured by the ISM non-manufacturing measure is picking up the slack. And the employment report was yet another in a long line of employment reports suggesting slow yet steady gains. Overall, a picture generally supportive of sustained growth and further improvement in labor markets.
A dovish view, however, could be easily derived from the following sentences and similar portions:
However, some participants expressed the view that the incoming information had not yet provided grounds for reasonable confidence that inflation would move back to 2 percent over the medium term and that the inflation outlook thus might not soon meet one of the conditions established by the Committee for initiating a firming of policy. Several of these participants cited evidence that the response of inflation to the elimination of resource slack might be attenuated and expressed concern about risks of further downward pressure on inflation from international developments. Another concern related to the risk of premature policy tightening was the limited ability of monetary policy to offset downside shocks to inflation and economic activity when the federal funds rate was near its effective lower bound.
Many market participants took this and related comments specifically referring to China and currency prices to argue that September was all but off the table. I would not be so quick; the former view is held by "many," whereas the latter was held by "some." Moreover, I find it hard to believe that any would think it a surprise that some officials explicitly discussed China and currencies. How could they not? How could you not think that in a wide-ranging discussion they had not discussed all that is both good and bad in the economy? That said, as I noted earlier, the minutes are stale. The depreciation of the yuan and further declines in commodity prices since the last FOMC meeting give reason to believe that the ranks of "some" has grown.
The latter points also appealed to those inclined against a rate hike. For instance, prior to the release of the minutes, the prescient Cullen Roche argued:
There is still a lot of chatter about the potential for a September rate hike by the Fed. I have to be honest – I think this is nuts at this point.
After the minutes he added:
My guess is that the odds of a Sept rate hike are fast approaching 0%.
I am clearly sympathetic to the view that the Fed looks to be rushing with the rate hike talk. That said, it is what many officials are talking about since the last FOMC meeting while looking at the same data we are. Via John Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:
Officials speaking since the July meeting have sent conflicting signals about where the group as a whole is most likely to go. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said he was inclined to move in September. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said in an interview with Market News International on Wednesday he would push for it. But in an opinion piece written in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota said it would be a mistake and Fed governor Jerome Powell said earlier this month a decision hadn’t been made.
Lockhart is seen as swaying with the general consensus, which argues for September. Bullard arguably shouldn't be pushing for a rate hike given his path tendency to follow the direction of market-based inflation expectations, but the neo-Fisherians seem to be making some traction with him. Powell is wisely keeping his cards close to his chest. They should not, after all, have made any decisions yet. And I would say that if Kocherlakota feels so strongly a need to argue against a rate hike in the Wall Street Journal, he must think the momentum is shifting the other direction.
Former Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence Meyer is also interesting here:
“What are you worrying about, September or December? It doesn’t matter. Just pull the trigger,” said Laurence Meyer, co-founder of Macroeconomic Advisers, a research firm, in an interview before the release of the minutes.
Just sick of the debate and wanting to move on? Or a real conviction that the Fed is set to move?
Bottom Line: I have believed that there was a better than 50% chance that the Fed would move in September and am hesitant to move much below 50%. I didn't expect the minutes would give a clear signal regarding September, and am not surprised by the dimensions of the general discussion. And I am wary the Fed may be less responsive to financial market disruption than during most of the post-crisis era given than the economy is close to their estimate of full employment. This is shaping up to be one of the most contentious meetings since the tapering debates. We will soon learn more exactly what data the Fed is data dependent on.
The economic outlook according to Michael Bauer of the SF Fed:
FedViews: Michael Bauer, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, states his views on the current economy and the outlook.
Revised estimates indicate that real GDP rose by 0.7% at an annualized rate in the first quarter of 2015, wiping out the previously reported contraction. A first estimate of 2.3% growth in the second quarter is consistent with an ongoing moderate expansion of the U.S. economy, confirming that the first-quarter weakness was largely due to transitory factors.
We expect the U.S. economy to grow slightly above its 2% long-term trend for the next four quarters, and then return to trend by the end of 2016. Positive fundamentals include both rising asset prices, which bolster wealth and balance sheets, and a strengthening labor market, which supports household income and consumer spending. However, the stronger dollar over the past year constitutes a headwind for net exports and a drag on growth. Uncertain economic conditions abroad, including in China and Europe, pose some risks to this outlook, but overall we view upside and downside risks as roughly balanced.
Labor market conditions have continued to improve, and the economy is nearing full employment. Job growth has been strong and consistent, jobless claims are near a 40-year low, and the unemployment rate of 5.3% in July indicates that there is very little slack in labor markets. While significant growth in wages and compensation has yet to appear, we expect a pickup in wage growth as labor markets tighten further.
Inflation remains below the Federal Open Market Committee’s 2% long-run target. We may see some further weakness in overall inflation in the second half of the year due to lower oil prices and a stronger dollar. However, we expect inflation to gradually move back to the target over the medium term as energy prices and the value of the dollar stabilize or reverse direction and as the slack in product and labor markets diminishes.
Financial conditions have modestly tightened in the first half of this year, as evidenced by a stronger dollar, modestly wider credit spreads, and more volatile global equity prices. However, overall they remain very supportive of aggregate demand and should continue to positively affect economic growth.
U.S. long-term interest rates have fallen over the past 30 years and are near historic lows. Three facts stand out about this secular decline: First, it has been a global phenomenon, as the decline in the United States was paralleled by a similar trend in most developed countries. Second, the decline was largely unexpected, and forecasters consistently overestimated the future level of interest rates at various points in the past. Third, the decline was evident not only in nominal interest rates but also, and more importantly, in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) interest rates, which drive saving and investment decisions.
Structural long-lived changes in the world economy have played an important role in this decline in long-term interest rates. In particular, trend growth of output and productivity has markedly slowed in developed countries—the phenomenon of so-called secular stagnation—which has reduced investment demand. Also, the global saving glut, mostly due to fast-growing emerging market economies with excess saving due to large trade surpluses, has exerted downward pressure on real interest rates. Another important contributing structural factor is the shortage of “safe” assets, such as high-quality government securities, the supply of which is failing to keep up with strong global demand.
Cyclical, transitory factors are also keeping long-term interest rates down. In particular, easy monetary policy in developed countries, implemented through low policy rates and quantitative easing, has kept short-term and long-term interest rates low. In addition, uncertainty surrounding the ongoing euro-area crisis and other related risks has led to precautionary savings and flight-to-safety demand. Finally, deleveraging by households and firms in the aftermath of the financial crisis in order to reduce their debt levels and improve their balance sheets has contributed to the global supply of savings.
The eventual reversal of the cyclical factors affecting investment and saving in financial markets should lead to some normalization of long-term interest rates. However, the structural factors are not expected to change rapidly. Hence, there is likely to be a new normal for long-term real rates, which will be different—and lower—than in the past.
In such an environment, borrowers would benefit from lower interest rates. On the other hand, savers seeking higher returns may take on more risk. A low interest rate environment would also give less potential room for monetary policy to stimulate economic growth through policy rate changes. In sum, lower real interest rates involve both benefits and risks.
This is something I've stressed with respect to the failure of macroeconomic models, the failure to ask the right questions prior to the crisis. There was no shortage of tools, though some -- like the restrictions imposed by representative agent modeling needed to be improved to better handle heterogeneous agents -- needed further development. The problem was that we had been told by the eminent thought leader(s) within the profession that the problem of deep recessions had been solved (if not by policy, then by the improvement in the operation of the economy brought about by modern technology -- markets were thought to function sufficiently well so as to avoid such problems, especially financial markets with their digital technology and physics brains). Thus, theoretical questions about deep recessions induced by financial panics were ignored or shunted off to the side (they seemed to lack empirical relevance at that time) and the profession focused on how to conduct policy in a "Great Moderation". So to answer why important questions were left largely unaddressed by mainstream models and thinking, it was a combination of the belief that the questions were unimportant combined with sociology within the profession that placed a lower value on pursuits that might have allowed us to be better prepared when the recession hit.
Simon Wren-Lewis argues there was ample reason to ask these questions if we had been more attention to empirical evidence:
Reform and revolution in macroeconomics: ...While it is nonsense to suggest that DSGE models cannot incorporate the financial sector or a financial crisis, academics tend to avoid addressing why some of the multitude of work now going on did not occur before the financial crisis. It is sometimes suggested that before the crisis there was no cause to do so. This is not true. Take consumption for example. Looking at the (non-filtered) time series for UK and US consumption, it is difficult to avoid attaching significant importance to the gradual evolution of credit conditions over the last two or three decades (see the references to work by Carroll and Muellbauer I give in this post). If this kind of work had received greater attention (which structural econometric modellers would almost certainly have done), that would have focused minds on why credit conditions changed, which in turn would have addressed issues involving the interaction between the real and financial sectors. If that had been done, macroeconomics might have been better prepared to examine the impact of the financial crisis. ...
Note, however, that by "self-deportation" I do not mean what Mitt Romney meant by the phrase: make life so unpleasant for undocumented immigrants in the United States that they decide to leave. What I mean by "self-deportation" is candidates adopting policies that would deport themselves.
Piyush Jindal's parents were Indian citizens in the United States on student visas. Ted Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban-citizen father. Both of Marco Rubio's parents were Cuban citizens when he was born. Columba Bush--wife of JEB! Bush--was born a Mexican citizen in Mexico, and Wikipedia at least claims that as of her wedding she did not speak English.
Yet all are now denouncing as unforgivably lax the birthright citizenship constitutional guarantee and the naturalization laws by which they or their spouse claim American citizenship.
This is affinity fraud: saying, "I'm just like you! I think as you do! I hate immigrants! Why, I'd have applauded if the U.S. were to have deported me as a baby!" And the very non-sensicality of the claim is what makes it more credible.
But the most interesting thing to me this morning is that this sort of affinity fraud--pretending to believe, or convincing even oneself that one does believe, patently unbelievable things in order to demonstrate group allegiance--is the way America's right-wing is carrying on its internal and external discussion of economics. Paul Krugman provides three examples:
(1) Claiming to believe or actually convincing oneself that inflation is just around the corner...
(2) Claiming to believe or even believing that recessions are outbreaks of collective laziness on the part of workers and collective forgetting on the part of entrepreneurs...
(3) Claiming to believe or actually believing that doubling down on failed intellectual bets is the right strategy--that if statistical tests reject your models, so much the worse for statistical tests because the models are good...
Now we have another example: Marco Rubio has announced his health care plan, and it involves (a) greatly shrinking the tax deductibility of employer health benefits and (b) turning Medicare into a voucher system. Part (a) is favored by many economists, although I would argue wrongly, but would be deeply unpopular; part (b) is really terrible policy — proposed precisely at the moment when Medicare is showing that it can control costs better than private insurers! — and also deeply unpopular.
The strategy here, surely, is to propose things that voters would hate if they understood what was on the table, but hope that Fox News plus “views on shape of planet differ” reporting elsewhere will keep them confused, while at the same time pleasing mega-donors. It might even work, especially if Trump can be pushed out of the picture and the Hillary-hatred of reporters overcomes professional scruples. But it’s still amazing to watch.
'Tax cuts for the wealthy will help you too!' worked pretty well as a deception, so why not try it elsewhere?