Category Archive for: Economics [Return to Main]

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fed Watch: Quick FOMC Recap

Tim Duy:

Quick FOMC Recap, by Tim Duy: Running short on time today....

Today's FOMC statement was a reminder that in normal times the Federal Reserve moves slowly and methodically. Policymakers were apparently concerned that removal of "considerable time" by itself would prove to be disruptive. Instead, they opted to both remove it and retain it:

Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy. The Committee sees this guidance as consistent with its previous statement that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time following the end of its asset purchase program in October, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.

If you thought they would drop "considerable time," they did. If you thought they would retain "considerable time," they did. Everyone's a winner with this statement.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen explained the change in language as necessary to shift away from the increasingly dated reference to the end of quantitative easing. In addition to the lower inflation and interest rate expectations in the Summary of Economic Projections, the statement was initially regarded as dovish. The press conference, however, was in my opinion anything but dovish.

During the presser, Yellen explained that "patience" was only likely guaranteed through the next "couple" of meetings, later clarified to be two. Hence, the April meeting is still on the table, although I still suspect that is too early. Yellen also said that a press conference was not required to raise rates; if necessary, they could always opt to have a presser even if one not scheduled. She dismissed falling market-based inflation expectations as reflecting inflation "compensation" rather than expectations. She dismissed the disinflationary impulse from oil, calling it transitory and drawing attention to the expected positive implications for US growth (much as she corrected described "noisy" inflation indicators earlier this year). She indicated that inflation did not need to return to target prior to raising rates, only that the Fed needed to be confident it would continue to trend toward target. She was very obviously unconcerned about the risk of contagion either via Russia or high yield energy debt - I think she almost seemed surprised anyone was worried about the latter.

In short, Yellen dismissed virtually all of the reasons to expect the Federal Reserve to delay rate hikes past its expectation of mid-2015. They have their eyes set firmly on June. My sense is that they see the accelerating economy and combine that with, as Yellen mentioned, the long lags of monetary policy, and worry that it will not be long before they are behind the curve.

To be sure, it is easy to outline a scenario that derails the Fed's plans. The impact of the oil shock on core inflation may be more than expected. Or rising labor force participation stabilizes the unemployment rate and wage growth continues to move sideways. My guess is that if they see an acceleration in wage growth between now and June, a June hike is pretty much in the bag.

Bottom Line: Like it or not, believe it or not, the Fed is seriously looking at mid-2015 to begin the normalization process. And there is no guarantee that it will be a predictable series of modest rate hikes. As much as you think of the possibility that the hike is delayed, think also of the possibility of 1994.

'Minimal Model Explanations'

Some of you might find this interesting:

“Minimal Model Explanations,” R.W. Batterman & C.C. Rice (2014), A Fine Theorem: I unfortunately was overseas and wasn’t able to attend the recent Stanford conference on Causality in the Social Sciences; a friend organized the event and was able to put together a really incredible set of speakers: Nancy Cartwright, Chuck Manski, Joshua Angrist, Garth Saloner and many others. Coincidentally, a recent issue of the journal Philosophy of Science had an interesting article quite relevant to economists interested in methodology: how is it that we learn anything about the world when we use a model that is based on false assumptions? ...

'Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform'

Surprise! Or not (more concerned with this than whether the Fed changed a few words in its Press Release following the FOMC meeting):

Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform, by Kevin Drum: Conventional pundit wisdom suggests that Wall Street may have overreached last week. Yes, they won their battle to repeal the swaps pushout requirement in Dodd-Frank, but in so doing they unleashed Elizabeth Warren and brought far more attention to their shenanigans than they bargained for. They may have won a battle, but ... they're unlikely to keep future efforts to weaken financial reform behind the scenes, where they might have a chance to pass with nobody the wiser.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all just political theater and Wall Street lobbyists know better than to take it seriously. Ed Kilgore points to this article in The Hill today:

Banks and financial institutions are planning an aggressive push to dismantle parts of the Wall Street reform law when Republicans take control of Congress in January. ...

Will Democrats in the Senate manage to stick together and filibuster these efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank? ... I'd like to think that Elizabeth Warren has made unity more likely, but then again, I have an uneasy feeling that Wall Street lobbyists might have a better read on things than she does. Dodd-Frank has already been weakened substantially in the rulemaking process, and this could easily represent a further death by a thousand cuts. ...

A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Co-Exist. Just Ask Scandinavia.

Neil Irwin:

A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Co-Exist. Just Ask Scandinavia: It is a simple idea supported by both economic theory and most people’s intuition: If welfare benefits are generous and taxes high, fewer people will work. ... Here’s the rub, though: The idea may be backward.
Some of the highest employment rates in the advanced world are in places with the highest taxes and most generous welfare systems, namely Scandinavian countries. The United States and many other nations with relatively low taxes and a smaller social safety net actually have substantially lower rates of employment. ...
In short, more people may work when countries offer public services that directly make working easier, such as subsidized care for children and the old; generous sick leave policies; and cheap and accessible transportation. ...
And this analysis may leave out some other factors... Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that wages for entry-level work are much higher in the Nordic countries than in the United States, reflecting a higher minimum wage, stronger labor unions and cultural norms that lead to higher pay. ... Perhaps more Americans would enter the labor force if even basic jobs paid that well, regardless of whether the United States provided better child care and other services. ...

Higher capital requirements: The jury is in

A follow up to this:

Higher capital requirements: The jury is in, by Stephen Cecchetti, Vox EU: Summary Regulators forced up capital requirements after the Global Crisis – triggering fears in the banking industry of dire effects. This column – by former BIS Chief Economist Steve Cecchetti – introduces a new CEPR Policy Insight that argues that the capital increases had little impact on anything but bank profitability. Lending spreads and interest margins are nearly unchanged, while credit growth remains robust everywhere but in Europe. Perhaps the requirements should be raised further. 

Links for 12-17-14

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

'The Ruble and the Textbooks'

Paul Krugman:

The Ruble and the Textbooks: OK, this is a bit funny: This morning Tim Duy addresses the woes of the ruble, which is in free fall despite a big rate hike, and declares that it “appears really quite textbook”. Meanwhile Matthew Yglesias says that what Russia is doing is “the textbook approach to handling a currency crisis”, and speculates about why it isn’t working.
I’m with Duy here; not sure if it’s actually in any textbook, but as I explained yesterday, for aficionados of emerging-market currency crises this is all quite familiar. ... When you have big balance-sheet problems involving foreign-currency debt, an interest-rate hike that tries to discourage capital flight damages the economy, and hence those same balance sheets, from another direction, and it’s common, even standard, for the effort to fail. Most notably, tight-money policies were really really unsuccessful during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8, on which you can read my take here. ...
So Russia isn’t that unusual a story, except for the nukes.

How Fiscal Policy Failed During the Great Recession

I have a new column:

How Fiscal Policy Failed During the Great Recession: Fiscal policy failed us during the Great Recession. We did get a fiscal stimulus package shortly after Obama took office, and it helped. But it wasn’t big enough and did not last long enough to make the kind of difference that was needed. Fear of deficits stood in the way, though all the dire predictions that were made about the debt associated with the stimulus package did not come to pass. We could have done so much more. ...

Fed Watch: IP, Russia

Tim Duy:

IP, Russia, by Tim Duy: The string of solid US economic news continued with industrial production advancing 1.3% in November. Year-over-year growth (5.2%) is now comparable to the late-90's:

IP121514

Meanwhile, the international fallout from the oil price drop continues. Russia is a classic emerging market crisis story. The decline in energy prices reveals a currency mismatch between assets and liabilities. The decline in oil dries up the dollars needed to support those liabilities, so the value of the ruble is bid down as market participants scramble for dollars. One suspects that capital flight from Russia only aggravates the problem; those oligarchs are seeing their fortunes whither. Currency plummets, aggravating the cycle. The sanctions were the beginning of this crisis, the oil price shock the culmination.
The Central Bank of Russia is forced into defending its currency via either depleting reserves or hiking interest rates. Both are losing games in a full blown crisis. The Central Bank of Russia has tried both, upping the ante by jacking up rates to 17% this afternoon, a hike of 650bp. That, however, is no guarantee of stability. Tight policy will crush the financial sector and the economy with it, triggering further net capital outflows that my guess will swamp the net inflows the rate hike was intended to create. Everything heads into free-fall until a new, lower equilibrium is established.
It is all appears really quite textbook. At this point, an IMF program would be on the horizon. But that's where the textbook changes. Hard to see the IMF just handing out a lifeline to an economy probably viewed by most as currently invading its neighbor (that's the point of the sanctions after all). And I am guessing that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin is not going to easily acquiesce to an IMF program in any event. At the moment, looks like Russia is toast. (Update: Arguably I am being a little pessimistic here. Joseph Cotterill points out that the rate hike falls well short of 1998.)
Venezuela is heading down the tubes as well, but that was always a given. Just a matter of time on that one.
Back at the Federal Reserve ranch, a fascinating experiment is underway. Have policymakers been successful in insulating the financial sector from these kinds of shocks? There will be losses, but will those losses cascade throughout the financial sector and into the real economy, or will they be contained? If the answer is containment, then interestingly Russia will lose a bargaining chip and the Fed's willingness to counter the potential risks of low interest rates with macroprudential policy will look like a sustainable policy mix.
If, however, contagion takes hold, we will once again be revisiting regulatory policy. And if the proximate cause of the contagion is deemed high-yield energy sector debt, and the excessively low rates in high-yield in general is deemed a consequence of ZIRP, then the Fed will be pushed to rethink its faith in macroprudential policy. The Austrians would have plenty of grist to chew on.
Bottom Line: All of this will be on the table at tomorrow's two-day FOMC meeting. The Fed will be forced to balance the US picture against the global shock. The primary argument to pull "considerable time" is the current US economic momentum. Furthermore, changing the language is not a policy change in any event; arguably, the language itself is already meaningless if the Fed is truly data dependent. In addition, policymakers may be wary to appear overly sensitive to financial markets. They may also be concerned that not eliminating the language will make the Fed appear less hawkish and more pessimistic than it is, thus risking disrupting financial markets at a later time if data suggests a rate hike is appropriate. The issue of "considerable time" however, is in my opinion, no longer of much interest. The macroprudential/regulatory experiment is far more important now.

Links for 12-16-14

Monday, December 15, 2014

'Higher Capital Requirements Didn't Slow the Economy'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Higher capital requirements didn't slow the economy: During the debate over the 2010 Basel III regulatory reform, one of the biggest concerns was that higher capital requirements would damage economic growth. Pessimists argued that forcing banks to increase their capitalization would lower long-run growth permanently and that the transitional adjustment would impose an extra drag on the recovery from the Great Recession. Unsurprisingly, the private sector saw catastrophe, while the official sector was more positive.
The Institute of International Finance’s (IIF) 2010 report is the most sensational example of the former and the Macroeconomic Assessment Group (MAG) one of the most staid cases of the latter. The IIF concluded that banks would need to increase capital levels dramatically and that this would drive lending rates up, loan volumes down and result in an annual 0.6-percentage-point hit to GDP growth in the United States, the euro area and Japan. By contrast, the MAG reported that the implied increase in capital would drive lending rates up only modestly, loan volumes down a bit, and result in a decline in growth of only 0.05 percentage point per year for five years – one-twelfth the IIF’s estimate.
Four years on we can start to take stock, and our reading of the evidence is that the optimistic view was correct. Since the crisis, capital requirements and capital levels have both gone up substantially. Yet, outside the still-fragile euro area, lending spreads have barely moved, bank interest margins have fallen and loan volumes are up. To the extent that more demanding capital regulations had any macroeconomic impact, it would appear to have been offset by accommodative monetary policy. ...

[There is much, much more in the post.]

Paul Krugman: Wall Street’s Revenge

The battle over financial reform is far from over:

Wall Street’s Revenge, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: On Wall Street, 2010 was the year of “Obama rage,” in which financial tycoons went ballistic over the president’s suggestion that some bankers helped cause the financial crisis. They were also, of course, angry about the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which placed some limits on their wheeling and dealing.
The Masters of the Universe, it turns out, are a bunch of whiners. But they’re whiners with war chests, and now they’ve bought themselves a Congress. ...
Wall Street overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and invested heavily in Republicans once again this year. And the first payoff to that investment has already been realized. Last week Congress passed a ... rollback of one provision of the 2010 financial reform.
In itself, this rollback is significant but not a fatal blow to reform. But it’s utterly indefensible. ... One of the goals of financial reform was to stop banks from taking big risks with depositors’ money. ... If banks are free to gamble, they can play a game of heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose. ...
Dodd-Frank tried to limit this kind of moral hazard in various ways, including a rule barring insured institutions from dealing in exotic securities, the kind that played such a big role in the financial crisis. And that’s the rule that has just been rolled back. ...
What just went down isn’t about free-market economics; it’s pure crony capitalism. And sure enough, Citigroup literally wrote the deregulation language that was inserted into the funding bill.
Again, in itself last week’s action wasn’t decisive. But it was clearly the first skirmish in a war to roll back much if not all of the financial reform. And if you want to know who stands where in this coming war, follow the money: Wall Street is giving mainly to Republicans for a reason. ...
Meanwhile, it’s hard to find Republicans expressing major reservations about undoing reform. You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.
So the people who brought the economy to its knees are seeking the chance to do it all over again. And they have powerful allies, who are doing all they can to make Wall Street’s dream come true.

Fed Watch: More Questions for Yellen

Tim Duy:

More Questions for Yellen, by Tim Duy: FOMC meeting this week. We all pretty much know the lay of the land. "Considerable time" is on the table, and whether it stays or goes is a close call. The existence of the press conference this week argues for the change over just waiting until January. Stupid reason, I know, but we are just playing the Fed's game here. No real reason not to wait until January other than to keep a March rate hike in play, but only a few policymakers are seriously looking at March anyway. Uncertainty regarding the financial market impact of the oil price drop and its subsequent impact on credit markets seems sufficient to stay the Fed's hand - but they may be hesitant to appear reactive to every dip in financial markets. If the statement is changed, they will probably replace "considerable time" with the intention to be "patient" when considering the timing of the first rate hike.
They will be navigating some tricky currents when constructing the rest of the statement. The opening paragraph will need to acknowledge the improved data - the US economy clearly has some momentum. They will also acknowledge again the expected impact of energy prices on headline inflation, but emphasize the temporary nature of the impact and fairly stable survey-based expectations. This suggest another dismissal of market-based measures.
The Fed could argue that improving domestic indicators at a time of softening in the global economy leaves the risks to the outlook as nearly balanced. They can't both suggest that risks are weighted to the downside and pull the "considerable time" language. That would, I think, be just silly. If they want to suggest there is a preponderance of downside risks, then they will leave in "considerable time." It will be interesting to see if they mention the external environment at all - we know from the minutes of the previous meeting that they were concerned about appearing overly pessimistic.
I have previously suggested two questions for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen at the post-FOMC press conference:
If you want to know what the Fed is thinking at this point, a journalist needs to push Yellen on the secular stagnation issue at next week's press conference. Does she or the committee agree with Fischer? And does she see any inconsistency with the SEP implied equilibrium Federal Funds rates and the current level of long bonds?
and
I would like a journalist to press Yellen on her interpretation of the 5-year, 5-year forward breakeven measure of inflation expectations. Does she see this measure as important or too noisy to be used as a policy metric? What is her preferred metric?
Now I have four additional questions. The first refers to Yellen's previous endorsement of optimal control theory, which as stated in 2012 suggests the extension of zero rate policy well into 2015. Recent research from the Federal Reserve indicates that the same framework is now signaling that liftoff should occur in late 2014, suggesting that the Federal Reserve is now behind the curve. Did Yellen embrace this methodology only until it began to give results she did not like? The obvious question is thus:
Considering that recent updates of your optimal control framework now suggest that the normalization process should already be underway, how useful do you believe such a framework is for the conduct of monetary policy? What specific framework are you now using to dismiss the results of your previously preferred framework?
The second, arguably related, question refers to St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard's argument that the Fed is very close to reaching its monetary policy goals:

Bullard121214

Thus another question is:
St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard has defined a specific metric to assess the Fed's current distance from its goals. What is your specific metric and by that metric how far is the Fed from it's goals? What does this metric tell you about the likely timing of the first rate hike of this cycle?
A third question is obvious. Given current readings on inflation:
Why is the Fed setting the stage for raising interest rates next year while inflation measures remain below target? What is the risk, exactly, of explicitly committing to a zero interest rate policy until inflation reaches at least your target?
The fourth question addresses the potential financial instability related to oil price shock. Note that critics of Fed policy have posited that the low interest rate policy would encourage excessive risk taking in the reach for yield. High yield debt markets have come under particular scrutiny. The Fed has responded that they need to address any financial market instabilities first with macroprudential policy rather than tighter monetary policy. That approach is going to come under sharp criticism if the oil-related debt defaults cascade destructively throughout US financial markets. A natural question is thus:
High yield debt markets are currently under pressure from the decline in oil prices. Are you confident that macroprudential tools are sufficient to contain the damage to energy-related debt? If the damage cannot be contained and contagion to other markets spreads, what does this tell you about the ability to use low interest rate policy without engendering dangerous financial instabilities?
If anyone uses these questions or variations thereof, feel free to give me some credit. Or at least when you speak of me, speak well.
Bottom Line: Odds are high that the Fed alters the statement to increase their policy flexibility next year. But even if they drop "considerable time," Yellen will emphasize via the press conference that this change does not mean a rate hike is imminent. She will emphasize that the timing and pace of rate hikes remains firmly data dependent. The current oil-related disruptions in financial markets loom like a dark cloud over a both the FOMC meeting and the generally improving US outlook.

Links for 12-15-14

Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Assessing the Outcome of the Lima Climate Talks'

Robert Stavins:

Assessing the Outcome of the Lima Climate Talks: In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 14th, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Lima, Peru with an agreement among 195 countries, the “Lima Accord,” which represents both a classic compromise between the rich and poor countries, and a significant breakthrough after twenty years of difficult climate negotiations. ...
The Lima Accord
By establishing a new structure in which all countries will state (over the next six months) their contributions to emissions mitigation, this latest climate accord is important, because it moves the process in a productive direction in which all nations will contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. ... The ... Lima Accord constitutes a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which ... have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).
The expanded geographic scope of the Lima Accord ... represents the best promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful. ...
The Key Roles Played by China and the United States
Throughout the time I was in Lima, it was clear that the joint announcement on November 12th of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) provided necessary encouragement to negotiations that were continuously threatened by the usual developed-developing world political divide. ...
As I predicted in my previous essay at this blog,... the Lima Accord will surely disappoint some environmental activists. Indeed, there have already been pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks have not and will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal.
As I said in my previous essay, these well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries..., when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.
They ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action. Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others. And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is what the Lima Accord provides. ...
The Bottom Line
Although it is fair to say that the Lima text was watered down in the last 30 hours (largely as a result of effective opposition by developing countries), the fact remains that a new way forward has been established in which all countries participate and which therefore holds promise of meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change.
So, despite all the acrimony among parties and the 30-hour delay in completing the talks, the negotiations in Lima these past two weeks may turn out to be among the most valuable steps in two decades of international climate negotiations.

Real Business Cycle Theory

Roger Farmer:

Real business cycle theory and the high school Olympics: I have lost count of the number of times I have heard students and faculty repeat the idea in seminars, that “all models are wrong”. This aphorism, attributed to George Box,  is the battle cry  of the Minnesota calibrator, a breed of macroeconomist, inspired by Ed Prescott, one of the most important and influential economists of the last century.
Of course all models are wrong. That is trivially true: it is the definition of a model. But the cry  has been used for three decades to poke fun at attempts to use serious econometric methods to analyze time series data. Time series methods were inconvenient to the nascent Real Business Cycle Program that Ed pioneered because the models that he favored were, and still are, overwhelmingly rejected by the facts. That is inconvenient. Ed’s response was pure genius. If the model and the data are in conflict, the data must be wrong. ...

After explaining, he concludes:

We don't have to play by Ed's rules. We can use the methods developed by Rob Engle and Clive Granger as I have done here. Once we allow aggregate demand to influence permanently the unemployment rate, the data do not look kindly on either real business cycle models or on the new-Keynesian approach. It's time to get serious about macroeconomic science...

Links for 12-14-14

Saturday, December 13, 2014

'Citigroup Will Be Broken Up'

Simon Johnson:

Citigroup Will Be Broken Up: Citigroup is a very large bank that has amassed a huge amount of political power. Its current and former executives consistently push laws and regulations in the direction of allowing Citi and other megabanks to take on more risk, particularly in the form of complex highly leveraged bets. Taking these risks allows the executives and traders to get a lot of upside compensation in the form of bonuses when things go well – while the downside losses, when they materialize, become the taxpayer’s problem.
Citigroup is also, collectively, stupid on a grand scale. The supposedly smart people at the helm of Citi in the mid-2000s ran them hard around – and to the edge of bankruptcy. A series of unprecedented massive government bailouts was required in 2000-09 – and still the collateral damage to the economy has proved enormous. Give enough clever people the wrong incentives and they will destroy anything.
Now the supposedly brilliant people who run Citigroup have, in the space of a single working week, made a series of serious political blunders with long-lasting implications. Their greed has manifestly proved Elizabeth Warren exactly right about the excessive clout of Wall Street, their arrogance has greatly strengthened a growing left-center-right coalition concerned about the power of the megabanks, and their public exercise of raw power has helped this coalition understand what it needs focus on doing – break up Citigroup. ...

If we can't stop Citigroup from inserting changes to Dodd-Frank it desires into the "Cromnibus", then how, exactly -- with that sort of political influence -- does it get broken up?

Links for 12-13-14

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fed Watch: Data Supportive of Fed Plans

Tim Duy:

Data Supportive of Fed Plans, by Tim Duy: Incoming data in the second half of this week continues to support the Federal Reserve's plans to begin normalizing policy in the middle of next year, with the removal of "considerable time" language next week a likely first step.
Retail sales for November were unquestionably strong and reveal an acceleration in the pace of core sales:

CORERETAIL121214

You were right if you dismissed the early earnings on the holiday shopping season as useless noise. Similarly, consumer confidence is pushing to pre-recession levels:

MICHSENT121214

And note this from Reuters:
"Expected wage gains rose to their highest level since 2008, and consumers voiced the most favorable buying attitudes in several decades," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.
As I have said before, nothing interesting happens until we get unemployment below 6%. Be prepared for a better equilibrium.
Even as the economic data improve, however, Wall Street remains on edge. Lower oil prices and the resulting impact on high yield bonds are resonating throughout credits markets while equity prices struggle. Despite warnings from Fed officials about the likely path of policy, long-dated US Treasury yields continue to remain under pressure. It is difficult to assess the impact on policy-making at this point. Fed officials will be torn between the market turmoil and expectations that lower energy prices will boost an already accelerating economy. And note that New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley was very dismissive of the idea that the Fed would respond to every financial market disruption as policy moved toward normalization:
Because financial market conditions affect economic activity only slowly over time, this suggests that we should look through short-term volatility and movements in financial markets. We should not respond until we become convinced that the movements will likely, without action on our part, prove sufficiently persistent to conflict with achievement of our objectives. Often, financial markets can be quite volatile and move a lot without disturbing underlying economic performance.
Similarly, he has been dismissive of market-based measures of inflation expectations.
In assessing inflation expectations, I currently put more weight on survey-based measures of inflation expectations as opposed to market-based measures. Survey-based measures have been generally stable, consistent with inflation expectations remaining well-anchored. However, market-based measures, such as those based on breakeven inflation derived from the difference between yields on nominal versus Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), have registered declines over the past few months, even on a 5-years forward basis. Research done by my staff suggests that much of this decline in market-based measures of inflation compensation reflects a fall in the inflation risk premium—that is, what investors are willing to pay to protect themselves against inflation risk. Adjusting for the fall in the inflation risk premium, inflation expectations appear to have declined much less than implied by TIPS inflation breakeven measures.
Market participants believe the Fed leans heavily on the 5-year, 5-year forward inflation metric. That measure is heading toward lows last seen on the eve of operation twist:

5Y5Y121214

The Fed dares not defy this chart. Or do they? Jim O'Sullivan at HFE accurately notes that the 5-year, 5-year forward breakeven has been inordinately driven by oil prices:
Why Fed prefers "survey based:" 5y5yf TIPS swing with oil even tho current infl irrelevant for pic.twitter.com/StxfsvubNh
— Jim O'Sullivan (@osullivanEcon) December 12, 2014
The Fed may be losing faith in these measures. As Dudley suggests, they may feel that such metrics are too simplistic, and find themselves favoring metrics like that offered by the Cleveland Fed that shows a firming of inflation expectations in recent months:

Image1

Note also that the resilience of survey-based metrics of inflation expectations. Back to Reuters and the confidence report:
The survey's one-year inflation expectation rose to 2.9 percent from 2.8 percent, while its five-year inflation outlook also rose to 2.9 percent from 2.6 percent last month.
And that leads me to my bottom line - another question for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen at next week's post-FOMC press conference.
Bottom Line: I would like a journalist to press Yellen on her interpretation of the 5-year, 5-year forward breakeven measure of inflation expectations. Does she see this measure as important or too noisy to be used as a policy metric? What is her preferred metric?

'Symmetric Application of Dynamic Scoring'

Menzie Chinn:

Symmetric Application of Dynamic Scoring: Republicans are keen to sacrifice CBO’s role as impartial arbiter of fiscal measures on the altar of “dynamic scoring” of tax measures.[0] But there is no economic reason for restricting this approach to only tax measures.
First, on tax measures,... there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty — model and parameter — associated with the intertemporal models necessarily used dynamic scoring of tax policies. See also this discussion of the Bush Administration’s foray, in this post. (Of course, I am skipping nonsensical analyses such as the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis of, for instance, the Ryan plan [1] [2] [3]).
Second, as pointed out by Alan Auerbach, there is no reason to only analyze tax policies. For instance, spending on Head Start which might enhance labor productivity should in principle be scored dynamically. And, so too should infrastructure. Consider this assessment from the IMF’s Research Department, regarding public investment. ...
Notice that debt declines 4 percentage points of GDP in response to an exogenous 1 percentage point of GDP increase in public investment. In addition output increases 1.5 percentage points relative to baseline. Now, one could argue — particularly with respect to debt-to-GDP — the response is only statistically significantly different from zero in the short term. However, one has even less empirical evidence regarding statistical significance for tax revenue responses to tax rate changes in many instances.
So, let’s think twice about dynamic scoring…

'Why America’s Middle Class is Lost'

Part 1 of Tankersley's series on the problems facing the middle class ("Liftoff & Letdown: The American middle class is floundering, and it has been for decades. The Post examines the mystery of what’s gone wrong, and shows what the country must focus on to get the economy working for everyone again. Monday: The devalued American worker."):

Why America’s middle class is lost, by Jim Tankersley, Washington Post: ... Yes, the stock market is soaring, the unemployment rate is finally retreating after the Great Recession and the economy added 321,000 jobs last month. But all that growth has done nothing to boost pay for the typical American worker. Average wages haven’t risen over the last year, after adjusting for inflation. Real household median income is still lower than it was when the recession ended.
Make no mistake: The American middle class is in trouble.
That trouble started decades ago, well before the 2008 financial crisis, and it is rooted in shifts far more complicated than the simple tax-and-spend debates that dominate economic policymaking in Washington. ...
In this new reality, a smaller share of Americans enjoy the fruits of an expanding economy. This isn’t a fluke of the past few years — it’s woven into the very structure of the economy. And even though Republicans and Democrats keep promising to help the middle class reclaim the prosperity it grew accustomed to after World War II, their prescriptions aren’t working. ...
The great mystery is: What happened? Why did the economy stop boosting ordinary Americans in the way it once did?
The answer is complicated, and it’s the reason why tax cuts, stimulus spending and rock-bottom interest rates haven’t jolted the middle class back to its postwar prosperity. ...

Paul Krugman: Mad as Hellas

What's the real lesson from the troubles in Greece?:

Mad as Hellas, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The Greek fiscal crisis erupted five years ago, and its side effects continue to inflict immense damage on Europe and the world. But I’m not talking about the side effects you may have in mind — spillovers from Greece’s Great Depression-level slump, or financial contagion to other debtors. No, the truly disastrous effect of the Greek crisis was the way it distorted economic policy...
Suddenly, we were supposed to obsess over budget deficits... In reality,... the experience of Greece and other European countries that were forced into harsh austerity measures should ... have convinced you that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a really bad idea... And the devastation in Greece is awesome to behold. ...
The ... news that has roiled Europe these past few days is that the Greeks may have reached their limit. The details are complex, but basically the current government is trying a fairly desperate political maneuver to put off a general election. And, if it fails, the likely winner in that election is Syriza, a party of the left that has demanded a renegotiation of the austerity program, which could lead to a confrontation with Germany and exit from the euro.
The important point here is that it’s not just the Greeks who are mad as Hellas (their own name for their country) and aren’t going to take it anymore. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, outpolls mainstream candidates of both right and left. Look at Italy, where about half of voters support radical parties like the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement. Look at Britain, where both anti-immigrant politicians and Scottish separatists are threatening the political order.
It would be a terrible thing if any of these groups — with the exception, surprisingly, of Syriza, which seems relatively benign — were to come to power. But there’s a reason they’re on the rise. This is what happens when an elite claims the right to rule based on its supposed expertise,... then demonstrates both that it does not, in fact, know what it is doing, and that it is too ideologically rigid to learn from its mistakes.
I have no idea how events in Greece are about to turn out. But there’s a real lesson in its political turmoil that’s much more important than the false lesson too many took from its special fiscal woes.

Links for 12-12-14

Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Inequality Harms the Most Vulnerable'

At MoneyWatch:

Inequality harms the most vulnerable among us: The large increase in inequality in recent years has been well documented by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, among others. But less is known about the consequences. What impact has rising inequality had on the overall economy and on individual households?
Evidence is mounting that inequality is harmful to economic growth, and recent findings also suggest that increasing inequality "is linked to more deaths among African Americans." ...

'Growth slowdowns: Middle-Income Trap vs. Regression to the Mean'

Lant Pritchett and Lawrence H. Summers:

Growth slowdowns: Middle-income trap vs. regression to the mean, by Lant Pritchett, Lawrence H. Summers, Vox EU: Dozens of nations think they are in the ‘middle-income trap’. Lant Pritchett and Larry Summers present new evidence that this trap is actually just growth reverting to its mean. This matters since belief in the ‘trap’ can lead governments to misinterpret current challenges. For lower-middle-income nations the 21st century beckons, but there are still 19th century problems to address. Moreover, sustaining rapid growth requires both parts of creative destruction, but only one is popular with governments and economic elites.

No question is more important for the living standards of billions of people or for the evolution of the global system than the question of how rapidly differently economies will grow over the next generation. We believe that conventional wisdom makes two important errors in assessing future growth prospects.

  • First, it succumbs to the extrapolative temptation and supposes that, absent major new developments, countries that have been growing rapidly will continue to grow rapidly, and countries that have been stagnating will continue to stagnate.

In fact, when it comes to growth, our research (Pritchett and Summers 2014 [5]) suggests that the past is much less the prologue than is commonly supposed.

  • Second, conventional wisdom subscribes to the notion of a ‘middle-income trap’ – the idea that when countries reach some intermediate income threshold, growth becomes much more difficult.

Our work suggests that any tendency of this type is very weak, and that what is often ascribed to the middle-income trap is better thought of as growth rates reverting to their means.

Sportswriters refer often to the phenomenon of the ‘sophomore slump’ – the tendency for outstanding rookies to perform less well in their second seasons. In that same vein, reference is often made to the ‘cover of Time magazine curse’ – the observation that public figures or celebrities seem to be on the cover of Time at the peak of their careers, and that it is downhill from there. Both of these phenomena reflect the statistical principle of mean reversion. In any process where there are transitory random fluctuations, there will be a tendency for increases to be followed by decreases, and above-average levels to be followed by declines.

In Pritchett and Summers (2014), we apply this frame to the analysis of national growth rates and find that regression to the mean is a robust regularity. We corroborate earlier findings (e.g. Easterly et al. 1993) that find the correlation across decades in national growth rates is surprisingly low, typically in the range of 0.2 to 0.3. This is in sharp contrast to typical forecasts, which assume much more persistence in growth rates – with both success and failure expected to continue. It is also inconsistent with many prevailing theories of growth that seek to explain growth performance in terms of highly stable national features like culture, institutional quality, or the degree of openness. We suggest that the prevailing pattern of regression to the mean in growth rates should create substantial doubt about extrapolative forecasts of China’s growth, and we believe that there is a significant risk of a major growth slowdown in China at some point over the next decade.

It is natural to ask whether there is any content to the idea of a ‘middle-income trap’ over and above regression to the mean. Since countries that have recently entered into any classification of ‘middle-income’ are, almost by definition, countries that have had recent rapid growth, it is obviously difficult to distinguish between these two phenomena. We think there are three ways in which ‘middle-income trap’ is overstated as a concern relative to regression to the mean.

Which countries should count as ‘middle-income’?

First, we find it difficult to understand the meaning of the ‘middle-income trap’ when it is used to discuss countries that range from Latin American countries to Russia to China to Indonesia to India to Vietnam to Ethiopia. We agree that all of these (and other) rapidly growing countries should be greatly concerned about the risk of a growth deceleration. But, it is not at all clear what the ‘middle-income trap’ means – outside of some arbitrary threshold the World Bank set decades ago for concessional lending – if countries at less than 11% of US GDP per capita (Indonesia 10.2, India 8.5, Vietnam 8.0 and Ethiopia 1.8) qualify and are considered at risk. The 2011 world average GDP per capita was $14,467 and the median was $8,491. Countries like Mexico (average GDP $12,709), Malaysia ($13,468), and Turkey ($14,437) are clearly ‘middle-income’ countries, and having reached these levels of economic sophistication might make continued progress more difficult. But, India could grow for 20 more years at 6% per capita before reaching Mexico’s 2011 level of $12,709, and for Ethiopia it would take 47 years. It is impossible to disentangle the ‘middle-income trap’ from regression-to-the-mean growth dynamics if all growing countries – regardless of their current level of income – are considered at risk of a ‘middle-income trap’.

Income level is a poor predictor of growth slowdowns

Second, if we run an empirical horse race of the correlates of growth decelerations (discrete transitions to lower growth), we find rapid growth a much more powerful predictor of the likelihood of a deceleration than level of income. In our recent paper, Pritchett and Summers (2014), we the use the timing of growth episodes from Kar et al. (2013) to estimate a dummy for a growth deceleration, and regress that on current growth and a quartic in the level of per capita income.

There are three points, all visibly detectable in Figure 1, that plot the predicted values for a country at the average growth rate, at India’s growth rate of 6.3% per annum, and at China’s growth rate of 8.6% per annum.

First, we take an F-test of whether the income terms are jointly significant at the 0.037 level. We find significance, but this is entirely driven by the difference between the very highest income countries and the rest of the sample – the tapering risk for high-income countries. If one estimates the same regression for just those under $25,000 (or any lower threshold), the income terms are not jointly significant.

Second, while the quartic has some ‘middle-income trap’ features – particularly, that decelerations are more likely at higher income ranges up to a point, and less likely above that point – the peak to trough difference is small. For a country at the average growth rate, the smallest likelihood of a deceleration is 4.3% at an income level of roughly $5,500, which then increases, but only to 5.7% at income of roughly $19,000. Going from the range of incomes of Mongolia or Jamaica all the way to the upper middle-income range of Hungary or Bahrain would increase the predicted deceleration in any given year by only 1.4%. Not surprisingly, given the low value of the F-test, this is much smaller than the standard error of the prediction, so within this range, the highest and lowest risks of the ‘middle-income trap’ are not significantly different.

Rapid growth is a strong predictor of future slowdowns

Third, in contrast to the very weak impact of level of income, the impact of the current growth rate on the likelihood of deceleration is large, significant, and important. A 1% higher growth rate leads to a 1.46% higher risk of deceleration – equal to the trough to peak rise due to moving into the ‘middle-income’ range. The T-statistic on past growth is 13.3. As Figure 1 shows, the predicted likelihood of a slowdown in China is 14.4% at its current growth rate of 8.63%, and at the country sample growth rate of 1.84%, but the same income level it is only 4.5% – a 10 percentage point difference.

So, by these predictions of the correlates of growth slowdowns, there is a substantial risk of slowdown for countries that are growing rapidly, but it is almost entirely due to regression to the mean; whereas, the effect of the ‘middle-income trap’ is small, and even moves to the peak ‘middle-income trap’ risk on these estimates empirically add little value.

Figure 1. Risk of growth slowdown from ‘middle-income trap’ is small compared to risk from regression to the mean

Voxeu1
Source: Pritchett and Summers 2014.

These three findings – low statistical significance, small empirical magnitudes, much larger differences in predicted change in growth – also hold true for simple panel regressions of growth acceleration rates on lagged growth rates and a quartic in level of income at five-year frequencies. There is some increase in the likelihood of acceleration up to a point, and then a decline above that point – but the magnitude of pure ‘middle-income’ decreasing acceleration in growth at income levels above $11,000 is small compared to the regression-to-the-mean effect. The coefficient on lagged growth is 0.83 – consistent with strong mean reversion.

Why do we care whether the impetus for adopting policies to sustain growth is based on a narrative of regression to the mean as opposed to the ‘middle-income trap’? Both emphasise that sustaining rapid growth is hard and that the quickest way to slow growth is complacency during rapid growth. However, we think there are three important differences.

Three important differences for policy thinking

First, the cause of the sophomore slump cannot be found by asking, “What went wrong in athletes’ second years?” The cause of sophomore slumps may just be exceptionally good luck in their first years. It was not that success was qualitatively harder in their second year or that they got worse, just that things tend to even out. As we have learned excruciatingly from experience with the financial crisis in the US, the time when things seem to be going well is the time it is most important to be prudent about the future. Labelling the problem of sustaining growth as the ‘middle-income trap’ might suggest that the risk of a growth slowdown is much more controllable by policy than it actually is.

We have had a number of people suggest that China will not have a growth slowdown because a slowdown would be politically costly and hence Chinese policymakers have every incentive to avoid that. Thus, they will act to prevent it – and a known ‘trap’ should be easily avoidable. But acting to sustain an unsustainably high growth rate may lead subsequent adjustment to be much harsher. As our friend Ricardo Hausmann puts it, “the path from 8 percent growth to 4 percent growth often goes through negative 2 percent.”

Second, labelling the generic risk of growth slowdowns a ‘middle-income trap’ risks posing current challenges in the wrong light – of how to handle the final stages of the transition from middle-income into developed economy, with the accompanying ‘bright lights’ temptations of picking cutting-edge industries to attract, for example, biotech and software engineering firms. But, the complexity for most countries in the World Bank ‘lower-middle-income’ band is that the 21st century beckons, but there are still 19th century problems to address. Sixty percent of Indians still practice open defecation – because the urban water and sanitation is so inadequate. The average food share in Vietnam in 2010 was still 50% – and so core agriculture issues must remain on the agenda.

Third, one of the factors that makes sustaining rapid growth so difficult is that growth depends on both parts of creative destruction, but only one is popular with governments and economic elites. Everyone loves the ‘creative’, as it brings new investments, new industries, and new profits. But sustained economic growth typically relies on continued structural transformation in which new industries arise, but also old industries shrink – sometimes just relatively, but sometimes absolutely. While essential to sustained economic growth, neither governments nor existing firms like destruction – with its geographic shifts, employment shifts, and firm exits that are a necessary part of weeding out uncompetitive industries. This makes it much harder to sustain rapid growth (which few do) than to get it going (which many do). While this happens at ‘middle-income’ levels, it is also a part of economic transformation at every stage – from the challenges posed by the threat of new industrialists to the landed aristocracy in the Industrial Revolution to the difficulties facing the most advanced countries today. Sustaining growth is not a ‘middle-income’ problem – it is the fundamental challenge of progress at all stages.

At the end of the day, our reading of the statistical evidence is that rapid growth is not something that can be taken for granted, even for those who have enjoyed for a long time. Its continuation requires the constant renewal of good policy along with good luck. This is the challenging reality for all countries, not just those who have been deemed to have middle incomes.

References

Easterly W, M Kremer, L Pritchett and L Summers (1993), “Good Policy or Good Luck: Country Growth Performance and Temporary Shocks”, Journal of Monetary Economics 32(3): 459–483.

Kar S, L Pritchett, S Raihan and K Sen (2013), “Looking for a Break: Identifying Transitions in Growth Regimes”, Journal of Macroeconomics 38(B): 151–166.

Pritchett, L and L H Summers (2014), “Asiaphoria Meets Regression to the Mean [5]”, NBER Working Paper 20573. 

Fed Watch: Challenging the Fed

Tim Duy:

Challenging the Fed, by Tim Duy: Both Paul Krugman and Ryan Avent are pushing back on the Federal Reserve's apparent intent to raise rates in the middle of next year. Why is the Fed heading in this direction? Krugman offers this explanation:

My guess — and it’s only that — is that they have, maybe without knowing it, been bludgeoned into submission by the constant attacks on easy money. Every day the financial press, many of the blogs, cable financial news, etc, are full of people warning that the Fed’s low-rate policy is distorting markets, building up inflationary pressure, endangering financials stability. Hard-money arguments, no matter how ludicrous, get respectful attention; condemnations of the Fed are constant. If I were a Fed official, I suspect that I would often find myself wishing that the bludgeoning would just stop, at least for a while — and perhaps begin looking for an opportunity to prove that I’m not an inflationary money-printer, that I can take away punchbowls too.

I don't think that the Fed is reacting to external criticism. What I think is that there are two basic views of the world. In one view, the post-2007 malaise is simply the hangover from a severe financial crisis. Time heals all wounds, including this one, and the recent data suggests such healing is underway. The alternative view is that the economy is suffering from secular secular stagnation similar although not to the same extreme as Japan. The latter view suggests the need for a very low or negative real interest rates to maintain full employment, the former view suggests a fairly significant normalization of monetary policy.

I believe that the consensus view on the Fed is the former, that the malaise is simply temporary ("a temporary inconvenience") and now ending. I think this is evident from the Summary of Economic Projections - the implied equilibrium Federal Funds rate is around 3.75%. Perhaps this is below what might have been perceived as normal ten years ago, but the difference could be attributed to slower potential growth rather than secluar stagnation.

If you don't like that argument, then take the more explicit route. Gavin Davies did the intellectual legwork here so we don't have to, and catches Vice Chair Stanley Fischer saying that he doesn't believe the situation calls for protracted negative interest rates. In other words, he rejects the main monetary policy implication of the secular stagnation hypothesis.

And, I don't know if Krugman agrees, but I find it hard to believe that Fischer carries anything but extreme intellectual weight within the Fed. So I would hardly be surprised that the Fed would be moving in a direction he defined. One wonders where Fed Chair Janet Yellen's leadership is on this point? That was always a risk of adding Fischer to the Board - that what might have seemed to be a dream team turned into a power struggle.

This is not to say that I do not share Krugman's and Avent's concerns. I most certainly do. Fischer claims that markets do not believe the secular stagnation story either, but in my mind the flattening of the yield curve is a red flag that the Fed has less room to maneuver than implied by the SEP. But maybe once the Fed actually starts hiking rates, market participants get the clue and the yield curve shifts up. I am not sure I am interested in taking that risk at this point, but no one is asking me to serve on the Federal Reserve Board.

One quibble with Krugman regarding his interpretation of the Phillips Curve:

Suppose the Fed waits too long. Well, inflation ticks up — probably not much, since the short-run Phillips curve looks very flat. And the Fed has the tools to rein the economy in. It would be annoying, unpleasant, and no doubt there would be Congressional hearings berating the Fed for debasing the dollar etc.. But not a really big problem.

Maybe two quibbles. First is that if you asked policymakers why the Phillips Curve was flat, I think they would say that nominal wages rigidities hold up the back end, while tighter policy holds down the front. In other words, the reason inflation does not accelerate at low unemployment rates is that the Fed tightens policy accordingly. Second, I think they equate "reigning the economy in" as triggering a recession. I think they find this more than unpleasant.

Bottom Line: If you want to know what the Fed is thinking at this point, a journalist needs to push Yellen on the secular stagnation issue at next week's press conference. Does she or the committee agree with Fischer? And does she see any inconsistency with the SEP implied equilibrium Federal Funds rates and the current level of long bonds?

Links for 12-11-14

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'What is Congress Trying to Secretly Deregulate in Dodd-Frank?'

And so it begins:

What is Congress Trying to Secretly Deregulate in Dodd-Frank?, by Mike Konczal: There are concerns that the budget bill under debate in Congress will eliminate Section 716 of Dodd-Frank, using language previously drafted by Citigroup. So what is this all about?
Section 716 of Dodd-Frank says that institutions that receive federal insurance through FDIC and the Federal Reserve can’t be dealers in the specialized derivatives market. Banks must instead “push out” these dealers into separate subsidiaries that don’t benefit from the government backstop. They can still trade in many standardized derivatives and hedge their own risks, however. This was done because having banks act as swap dealers put taxpayers at risk in the event of a sudden collapse. That’s it.
Why would you want a regulation like this? The first is that it acts as a complement to the Volcker Rule. ...
A second reason is 716 will also prevent exotic derivatives from being subsidized by the government’s safety net. ...
The third reason is for the sake of financial stability. ...
Stiglitz reiterated this point today, saying “Section 716 facilitates the ability of markets to provide the kind of discipline without which a market economy cannot effectively function. I was concerned in 2010 that Congress would weaken 716, but what is proposed now is worse than anything contemplated back then.”
Now many on Wall Street would argue that this rule is unnecessary. However, their arguments are not persuasive. ...
We should be strengthening, not weakening, financial reform. And removing this piece of the law will not benefit this project.

See also Barney Frank Criticizes Planned Roll-Back of Namesake Financial Law.

'Labor Union Membership and Life Satisfaction'

Via a tweet from Bruce Bartlett:

Labor Union Membership and Life Satisfaction in the United States, by Patrick Flavin and Gregory Shufeldt: Abstract While a voluminous literature examines the effects of organized labor on workers’ wage and benefit levels in the United States, there has been little investigation into whether membership in a labor union directly contributes to a higher quality of life. Using data from the World Values Survey, we uncover evidence that union members are more satisfied with their lives than those who are not members and that the substantive effect of union membership on life satisfaction rivals other common predictors of quality of life. Moreover, we find that union membership boosts life satisfaction across demographic groups regardle ss if someone is rich or poor, male or female, young or old, or has a high or low level of education. These results suggest that organized labor in the United States can have significant implications for the quality of life that citizens experience.

'For Worker Control'

Chris Dillow:

For worker control: ... Social democrats used to think that they did not need to challenge the fundamental power structures of capitalism because, with a few good top-down economic and social policies, capitalism could be made to deliver increased benefits for workers and the poor in terms both of rising real wages and better public services. ...

The "golden era" in which this was true has vanished. Instead, we face harsher times... Times have changed. So the left must change. ...

There's one context in which this is especially necessary - the workplace. ... If firms cannot or will not offer rising wages, they should at least offer non-pecuniary benefits: more control over working conditions and the assurance of good rewards if the business thrives in future. There are ... big benefits to doing so...

Of course, there are countless types and degrees of worker ownership and control, some compatible with capitalism and some not. But this is a strength, not a weakness.

My point here is a simple one. The days when the leftist politics could ignore the "hidden abode of production" because lightly modified capitalism would deliver the goods have gone. Our new times require new politics. ...

Links for 12-10-14

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

'Is Inequality Good or Bad for Growth?'

From the OECD Insights blog:

Is inequality good or bad for growth?, by Brian Keeley: If you’ve been following the income inequality debate, you’ll know there’s been much discussion of the question in the headline above. Until just a few years ago, it’s probably fair to say that mainstream opinion leaned towards the “good for growth” side of the debate. Yes, inequality might leave a bad taste in the mouth, but it was worth it if it meant a strong economy. ...
But over the past couple of years,.... that inequality is good, or at least not bad, for growth ... has come under increasing fire, including from the IMF, the OECD and even Standard & Poor’s. And now comes new research from the OECD indicating that “income inequality has curbed economic growth significantly”.
Much of the coverage of rising inequality has focused on the incomes of “the 1%”. But the OECD research, which was led by Michael Förster and Federico Cingano, indicates that it’s the situation of people at the other end of the earnings scale that has the biggest impact on growth. These lower-income households are not a small group. They represent some 40% of the population...
Where overall inequality is higher in a society, a clear pattern emerges: People from such backgrounds invest much less in developing their human capital – essentially their education and skills. By contrast, it has almost no impact on the educational investment of middle-income and wealthy families. The implications for social mobility are clear – an ever-widening education and earnings gap between society’s haves and have-nots. ...
Just how bad is clear from the OECD research. It estimates that rising inequality knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand in the two decades up to the Great Recession. The impact of rising inequality was also felt – albeit not as strongly – in a number of other OECD countries, including Italy, the UK and the US and even in countries with relatively low levels of inequality like Sweden, Finland and Norway
To be sure, the debate over inequality and growth will certainly continue. Just last week (before publication of the new OECD paper), Nobel laureate Paul Krugman admitted he was a “skeptic” who remained to be convinced of the link. But the fact that the debate is happening at all is surely a good thing. Rising inequality is one of the most significant socioeconomic trends of our time. Understanding its possible impact on our societies and economies has surely never been more important.

In the report, they authors also say:

... Tackling inequality through tax and transfer policies does not harm growth, provided these policies are well designed and implemented. In particular, redistribution efforts should focus on families with children and youth, as this is where key decisions on human capital investment are made and should promote skills development and learning across people’s lives. ...

'Profiles in Coreage'

Paul Krugman follows up on one of Tim Duy's posts:

Profiles in Coreage: Tim Duy, in the course of a discussion of the outlook for Fed policy, reminds us of the spring of 2011, when headline inflation had risen a lot mainly due to oil prices. He portrays Ben Bernanke as being all alone in insisting that the inflation bump was a blip, and would soon fade away. Actually, that’s not quite right; as far as I recall, most saltwater economists agreed. I was writing about it often. And the Fed, after all, routinely focuses on core inflation rather than headline numbers. Still, Bernanke was definitely under pressure.
What Duy doesn’t say is that the inflation fight of 2011 was about more than inflation; it was another aspect of the fight over how the economy works – and another big victory for the Keynesian view. The concept of core inflation arises out of the notion that most prices are “sticky” ... Standard measures of core inflation are imperfect ways of getting at this distinction, but they ... have been hugely vindicated by the experience of recent years. So I’m glad to see all the people who issued dire warnings about inflation in 2011 acknowledging that they had the wrong model. Hahahahaha.
And yes, this means that you should discount the effects of falling oil prices in the same way you discount the effects of rising oil prices. I would nonetheless urge the Fed to hold off on rate hikes, but for different reasons – the asymmetry in risks between raising rates early and raising them late. And I worry that the Fed may be losing the thread here (hi Stan!). But that’s another topic.

Fed Watch: Fed Updates Ahead of FOMC Meeting

Tim Duy:

Fed Updates Ahead of FOMC Meeting: I have tended to think that there is a tendency to underestimate the potential for a more hawkish Fed. From last week:

Dudley appears to be increasingly concerned that the evolution of financial conditions this year suggests the Fed needs to pursue a more aggressive policy stance or else risk a repeat of 04-07. If this concern is being felt more generally within the Fed, it clearly puts a more hawkish bias to the Fed's reaction function. And, in my opinion, I think the risk of a more hawkish Federal Reserve is under-appreciated. Few are expecting a hawkish Federal Reserve, reasonably so given the path of policy since 2008. But I don't think the data are that far from a tipping point for the Federal Reserve. Of course, take that in the context of my general optimism.

I think policymakers have been falling in line with the idea of a mid-2015 rate hike, somewhat earlier than market expectations. In a great piece, Gavyn Davies concurs:

One of the most successful rules for investors in the past few years has been never to underestimate the innate dovishness of the Federal Reserve. Whenever there has been a scare that the Fed might move in a hawkish direction, this has quickly proven to be a mistake. Forward curves for short term interest rates have consistently moved “lower for longer”, and incoming economic data have always ensured that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has remained comfortable with this tendency.

In recent months, however, the markets may have become over confident about the Fed’s dovishness in the face of a large and persistent decline in the US unemployment rate...

...The controlling group may be shifting towards the median dot, rather than the dovish end of the spectrum. This may even include Ms Yellen herself, if the Stanley Fischer interview is any guide. Mr Fischer is universally regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, but he has said very little about his personal views on monetary policy since taking office last May. He is unlikely to have broken this silence without the knowledge and support of the Chair.

Davies summarizes Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer's recent interview and concludes that "Mr Fischer is building a high hurdle to any delay in lift-off beyond mid 2015." Many policymakers are ready and eager to normalize policy, and they see economic improvements as consistent with normalization. Just like they wanted out of the asset purchase business, they want out of the zero rate business, and they see fewer and fewer reasons why this isn't possible.

A small step to that rate hike is the removal of the "considerable time" language in the FOMC policy statement on the basis that too much improvement in labor markets has occurred to justify a certain position on zero interest rates. If the Fed is looking for flexibility and does not want to surprise market participants with an unexpectedly hawkish position next year, they will soon need to loosen up the language. Hence sometime soon "considerable time" will be replaced, perhaps with the term "patience."

Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal puts us on alert that next week may be just that time:

Federal Reserve officials are seriously considering an important shift in tone at their policy meeting next week: dropping an assurance that short-term interest rates will stay near zero for a “considerable time” as they look more confidently toward rate increases around the middle of next year.

Senior officials have hinted lately that they’re looking at dropping this closely watched interest-rate signal, which many market participants take as a sign rates won’t go up for at least six months.

“It’s clearer that we’re closer to getting rid of that than we were a few months ago,” FedVice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week. New York Fed President William Dudleyhas avoided using the “considerable time” phrase in recent speeches and instead said the Fed should be “patient” before raising rates.

I find this piece of logic, however, to be irritating:

Fed officials have several tactical issues to consider that could prompt them to shift their rate assurance now, while they’re still taking measure of the economy’s strength. Ms. Yellen has a news conference after the policy meeting ends Dec. 17 to explain the central bank’s decision. The Fed doesn’t have another news conference scheduled until March. If officials wait to change the words until then, the market could take it as a signal officials are pushing off planned rate increases until the second half of next year.

It is not Hilsenrath I am irritated with, it is the Fed. It is fairly clear that the Fed has set expectations such that major policy moves can only be made in meetings with press conferences. It's the reason that June 2015 comes into focus for a rate hike - given the repeated warnings about the "middle of next year," March seems too early, and September too late. April and July are deemed not real policy meetings because they don't have press conferences. This really needs to end. The Fed needs to move to a press conference with every meeting.

If they feel they need a press conference to announce the end of the "considerable time" language, supporters of such a change will argue strongly for next week and probably win. It also opens up the possibility of a March hike, something the hawks would be keen on. Delaying the removal of "considerable time" to March would likely close off a June hike, but the moderates want to retain that option. I think both moderates and doves would be willing to wait until the January meeting, but that meeting has no press conference. So at this point I would be expecting that a change in the language next week is likely, and by the end of January is certain.

But make no mistake that I think that having to set policy by the timing of press conferences rather than the meetings is just stupid.

Finally, another line from Hilsenrath leaves me cautious:

At the same time, a stronger dollar and falling commodities prices—including the sharp decline in oil prices—are putting downward pressure on inflation.

I can certainly imagine that the stronger dollar is a consequence of stronger economic growth, which supports consumer prices. On the declining oil prices, I tend to view those as primarily supply side related and almost certainly a net positive for the US economy. Over the weekend Matt Busigin reminded us of this:

In April of 2011, Ben Bernanke was universally lambasted and lampooned for claiming that inflation, which was accelerating and running above 3%, was “transitory”. He used this view to justify loosening monetary policy. The next few months of CPI were not favourable to the Fed chairman’s views: it peaked at 3.8% (nearly double the implicit target at that point) in September of 2011, sparking a feverishly pitched cacophony of criticism that the Fed chair was out of touch, and tone-deaf in his theoretical ivory tower to the practical realities on the ground.

This, however, proved to be Bernanke’s finest hour. Yes, even more so than the extraordinary measures taken during the height of the credit crisis. His detractors then, of which there were still many, included people and institutions on the brink that needed the Fed to extend them a hand. In September of 2011, the chairman stood very much alone in his call for moderated inflation now that the acute disaster removed influential institutions and people from needing the Fed to act in order to survive....

...This is why Ben Bernanke’s 2011 triumph is relevant today. The same framework for understanding inflation through commodity prices and wages that successfully predicted the deceleration of inflation against the tidal wave of popular belief now finds itself in the inverse position: the expectations of inflation are very low, and despite low commodity prices, it expects inflation will accelerate...

You can read this for my similar take back in 2011. Rather than preventing inflation from returning to target, the oil price decline is likely to have the opposite impact and push inflation back to target. Hence the low-inflation argument for holding rates near zero will look weaker by June if not March.

Bottom Line: Fed is still positioning to begin normalizing rates in the middle of 2015. The data is less of an impediment with each passing day. The time to eliminate the "considerable period" language is fast approach. The press conference calendar argues for next week. Honestly, I hope they will skip this meeting in favor of the January meeting just to prove that every FOMC meeting is a live meeting. Alas, I think they believe they need the press conference to temper any adverse reactions from market participants. Finally, I am wary with the consensus view that the oil price decline in disinflationary. Open up to the possibility of the opposite. Look back to what you believed in 2011.

Links for 12-09-14

Monday, December 08, 2014

Tirole Lecture: 2014 Prize in Economic Sciences

'The Chinese Century'

Joe Stiglitz:

The Chinese Century: ...2014 was the last year in which the United States could claim to be the world’s largest economic power. China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history. ...
The areas where the United States remains competitive with China are not always ones we’d most want to call attention to. The two countries have comparable levels of inequality. ... China outpaces America in the number of people executed every year, but the U.S. is far ahead when it comes to the proportion of the population in prison... China overtook the U.S. in 2007 as the world’s largest polluter, by total volume, though on a per capita basis we continue to hold the lead. The United States remains the largest military power... (not that we have always used our military power wisely). But the bedrock strength of the U.S. has always rested less on hard military power than on “soft power,” most notably its economic influence. That is an essential point to remember. ...

The economic interests of China and the U.S. are intricately intertwined. We both have an interest in seeing a stable and well-functioning global political and economic order. Given historical memories and its own sense of dignity, China won’t be able to accept the global system simply as it is, with rules that have been set by the West, to benefit the West and its corporate interests, and that reflect the West’s perspectives. We will have to cooperate, like it or not—and we should want to. In the meantime, the most important thing America can do to maintain the value of its soft power is to address its own systemic deficiencies—economic and political practices that are corrupt, to put the matter baldly, and skewed toward the rich and powerful. ...

[There's quite a bit more in the article.]

Paul Krugman: Recovery at Last?

Economic recovery from a recession: Obama versus Bush:

Recovery at Last?, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week we got an actually good employment report... We’re still nowhere near full employment, but getting there no longer seems like an impossible dream.
And there are some important lessons from this belated good news..., it does put the lie to some of the nonsense you hear about why the economy has lagged.
Let’s talk first about reasons not to celebrate.
Things are finally looking better for American workers, but this improvement comes after years of suffering..., it has been a terrible seven years... Why was it so bad?
You often hear claims, sometimes from pundits who should know better, that nobody predicted a sluggish recovery, and that this proves that mainstream macroeconomics is all wrong. The truth is that many economists, myself included, predicted a slow recovery from the very beginning. Why? ...
We could have had a much faster recovery if the U.S. government had ramped up public investment and put more money in the hands of families likely to spend it. But the Obama stimulus was much too small and short-lived..., and since 2010 what we have actually seen, thanks to scorched-earth Republican opposition on all fronts, are unprecedented cutbacks in government spending, especially investment, and in government employment.
O.K., at this point I’m sure many readers are thinking that they’ve been hearing a very different story about what went wrong — the conservative story that attributes the sluggish recovery to the ... Obama administration. ...
Which is where the new job numbers come in. At this point we have enough data points to compare the job recovery under President Obama with the job recovery under former President George W. Bush, who also presided over a postmodern recession... And by any measure you might choose ... the Obama recovery has been stronger and faster. Oh, and its pace has picked up over the past year, as health reform has gone fully into effect.
Just to be clear, I’m not calling the Obama-era economy a success story. We needed faster job growth ... than under Mr. Bush, because the recession was deeper, and unemployment stayed far too high for far too long. But we can now say with confidence that the recovery’s weakness had nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s (falsely) alleged anti-business slant. What it reflected, instead, was the damage done by government paralysis — paralysis that has, alas, richly rewarded the very politicians who caused it.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

'The Imaginary World of Small State People'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

The imaginary world of small state people: ...In ... Europe ... there actually was a large constituency on the left that wanted a large state as a matter of principle. In the UK that constituency lost all its influence with Margaret Thatcher and New Labour, and it has also lost its influence in the rest of Europe. However this decline in the influence of big state people on the left was matched by a rise to power on the right of those who want a small state as a matter of principle. George Osborne’s plan for the UK over the next few years is the apotheosis of this neoliberal view.
I think I’m like the majority of people in not having any fixed ideological position about whether the state should be large or small. The state is clearly good at doing some things, and bad at doing others. In between there is a large and diverse set of activities which may or may not be better achieved through state direction or control, and they really need to be looked at item by item on their merits.
My first major problem with small state people is that they are not prepared to look at these items on their merits. Instead they have a blanket ideological distaste for all things to do with government. ... My second major difficulty with many small state people, like George Osborne, is that they are using fear of a debt crisis (a possibility which for the UK and US is non-existent) to achieve their ends. This is political deceit on a grand scale. My third major problem follows from the second: reducing government spending during a liquidity trap recession does real harm. It wastes resources on a huge scale. ...
Which brings me to a final problem I have with small state people, which is their disregard for the evidence. It is true that most people are bad at acknowledging counter evidence, but those with an ideological conviction are worse than most. ...
The ... claim that Osborne’s cuts have been such a success that they will cause a “deeper intellectual wound to the left than we currently understand” is simply delusional. These are fantasy ideas from those living in an imaginary world, while in reality the policies they support do serious harm.

'Decline in the Labor Force Participation Rate: Mostly Demographics and Long Term Trends'

Bill McBride at Calculated Risk:

Decline in the Labor Force Participation Rate: Mostly Demographics and Long Term Trends: For several years, I've been arguing that "most of the recent decline in the participation rate" was due to demographics and other long term structural trends (like more education).  Clearly this was an important issue because if most of the decline had been due to cyclical weakness, then we'd expect a significant increase in participation as the economy improved. If the decline was due to demographics and other long term trends, then the participation rate might keep falling (or flatten out for a period before declining again) as the economy improves. ...
Most of the recent research supports my view. ...

After going through lots of evidence, including the reasons for the decline in the participation rate for prime age workers (how much is due to the recession?), he concludes:

The bottom line is that the participation rate was declining for prime working age workers before the recession, there are several reasons for this decline (not just recent "economic weakness") and many estimates of "missing workers" are probably way too high.

Links for 12-07-14

Saturday, December 06, 2014

'Comparing Postmodern Recoveries'

In my very first piece for CBS news back in early November of 2009, almost a year and a half into the "recovery", I wrote an article saying that unemployment may not fully recover until 2013, four years later. The editors (who were different at the time than they are now) asked me a couple of times if I really wanted to be that pessimistic, and I said yes, I did. I honestly thought it would take that long, I wasn't just trolling (it was based in large part on an SF Fed forecast that output would recover in 2012 which turned out to be overly optimistic). And I kept warning from then on (as I had even before then here) that the recovery would be slow.

In the article I said:

... The reason for the slow recovery is partly due to the depth of the recession -- the deeper the hole, the longer it takes to crawl out of it -- but it's also because of the large amount of structural change that the economy must go through before it can recover. Prior to the recession we had too many resources in the housing, finance, and auto industries, and it will take time to move the people and resources who used to work in these industries into areas of the economy where they can be employed productively. And as new productive activities outside these areas arise, firms will install the best technology available. This technology will, in general, be more capital-intensive than before, and so we will need to surpass the pre-recession level of output before the demand for labor will return to its previous level. In addition, firms typically reorganize their job assignments after layoffs and discover that the same work can be performed with fewer workers and this, too, can slow the recovery period for employment relative to output.

The bottom line is that there's still a long road ahead, particularly for labor, and for that reason I am very much in favor of additional government policy targeted directly at the employment problem. In addition, given the record levels of long-term unemployment we are experiencing (those unemployed 27 weeks or more now constitute 35.6 percent of the unemployed; see here for a graphical representation of the situation), the recent vote to extend unemployment benefits was overdue and very welcome.

I also emphasized the delayed peak of unemployment relative to the trough for output in the previous recessions, and expected that to contribute to the slow recovery, but that didn't happen this time -- so I got that particular detail wrong (though not the more general idea of a jobless recovery like the previous two). And as time progressed, I began to also emphasize the problems households have in recovering from the losses they incur in a "balance sheet recession" -- that takes a long time -- but that was not part of this argument.

In the end, while I thought I was being pessimistic, four years to recover?, I was not pessimistic enough (though the pessimism was updated over time) and we are still waiting for full recovery.

On that note, Paul Krugman says today:

Comparing Postmodern Recoveries: Very early on — in fact, long before the 2007 recession was either declared officially, or admitted as reality by those still touting a Bush Boom — some of us warned that recovery would be slow, and initially jobless. Why? Because this was a postmodern business cycle, brought on not by monetary tightening but by private-sector overreach, and hence harder to turn around than, say, the 1979-82 slump. Nonetheless, as Menzie Chinn notes, a constant talking point on the right has been that slow growth showed the damage done by Obama policies. And not just at Heritage or whatever; people like Ed Lazear or John Taylor demonstrated the reality of the hack gap by asserting that the private sector wasn’t creating jobs because Obama was looking at them funny; also Obamacare.
How could you test this? Well, when I began talking about postmodern recessions, I argued that the 2007 slump was the third such example — that 1990-91 and 2001 were also postmodern recessions, followed by jobless recoveries. I’ll leave 1990-91 aside for now, because I’m lazy, and just note that we now have enough information to make a clear comparison between the recovery that began in 2001 and the one that began in 2009. ...
By any standard I can think of, the Obama-era job recovery has been stronger than the Bush-era job recovery. Now, I don’t think that reflects excellent policies; and I would argue that in some ways the depth of the preceding slump set the stage for a faster recovery. But the point is that the usual suspects have been using the alleged uniquely poor performance under Obama to claim uniquely bad policies, or bad attitude, or something. And if that’s the game they want to play, they have just scored an impressive own goal.

Links for 12-06-14

Friday, December 05, 2014

Fed Watch: Economy Clearly Gaining Momentum

Tim Duy:

Economy Clearly Gaining Momentum, by Tim Duy: The November employment report came in ahead of expectations, with a monthly nfp gain of 321k and 44k of upward revisions to previous months. Job gains were spread throughout the major sectors of the economy. The 2014 acceleration in job growth is clearly evident:

NFPa120514

The employment report in the context of indicators previously identified by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as important to watch:

NFPb120514

NFPc120514

Measures of underemployment are generally moving in the right direction. To be sure, the labor force participation rate remains in a general downward trend, but on this point I think you have to accept that demographic forces are driving the train. Year-over-year wage growth remains anemic although average wages gained 0.37% on the month. While this indicates that wage gains are not dead and gone forever, I would find it more impressive if these kinds of gains repeated themselves in the next few months. As I have said before, I think that will happen as unemployment rates fall further. I read nothing of importance into the unchanged unemployment rate for the month.
The tenor of this report harmonizes well with the song sung by recent data. Of course, data are inherently variable, and not every report will be as bright (or as dark) as the last. Nor would we expect a string of 300k+ gains in employment just yet. But I think any reasonable single extraction effort tells you that activity is on a firmer footing than it has been in years, and there is little reason to expect the improvements will reverse quickly. The US economy has momentum. Do not discount the value of that momentum.
Fixed income markets quickly discerned what this report means for the Fed - the risk is that rate hikes will come sooner than expected. At time of writing, the yield on the two-year bond gained 11bp, while the ten-year yield rose 9bp. The Fed will be pleased by the upward though controlled gains at the longer end of the yield curve as they will associate those gains with modestly less financial accommodation. They may be less pleased that stocks keeps hitting record highs as it suggests that financial conditions are easing somewhat, thus perhaps necessitating a faster pace of rate hikes. Over the longer run, I remain wary of the flattening yield curve.
My guess is that the Fed will soon begin to believe that they stayed pessimistic on the recovery the year the recovery began to show significant signs of life. More on the Fed next week.
Bottom Line: A solid employment report. The risk that the first rate hike comes sooner than June continues to rise.

'Economy Adds 321,000 Jobs, Strongest Gain in Almost Three Years'

Dean Baker on today's jobs report. Not his concluding paragraph:

Economy Adds 321,000 Jobs, Strongest Gain in Almost Three Years: Over the last three months wages grew at a 1.8 percent annual rate.
The economy added 321,000 jobs in November, the strongest gain since it added 360,000 in January of 2012. With upward revisions to the prior two months data, the average job gain over the last three months has been 275,000. The household survey showed unemployment unchanged at 5.8 percent, with the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) also unchanged at 59.2 percent.
The gains were widely spread across sectors. ...
Other news in the establishment survey was also positive. The average workweek increased by 0.1 hour to 34.6, the longest since May of 2008 and wages reportedly rose by 9 cents. The one-month jump was in large part an anomaly; over the last three months wages have risen at just a 1.8 percent annual rate compared with the prior three months. There is little evidence of any wage acceleration in any major sector.

jobs-2014-12

While the overall employment and unemployment numbers changed little in November, there was some positive news in the household survey. The number of people involuntarily employed part time fell by 200,000. It is now almost 900,000 below the year-ago level. By contrast, the number of people voluntarily choosing to work part-time rose by 297,000. It is now more than 1 million higher than the year-ago level. This is almost certainly the result of the Affordable Care Act, which has allowed people to get insurance outside of employment so that many people no longer have to work full-time jobs to get insurance for themselves or their families.
In another positive sign, the percent of the unemployed who had voluntarily quit their job rose to 9.1 percent. This measure of confidence in the labor market is at its highest level in the recovery, albeit well below the 11-12 percent range in the pre-recession period. The median duration of unemployment spells and the share of long-term unemployed both fell to their lowest level in the recovery, although the average duration rose slightly. Black teen employment rate rose to 21.8 percent, the highest since January of 2008, while unemployment fell to 28.1 percent, the lowest since April of 2008.
Interestingly, the recovery seems to be disproportionately benefiting workers with less education. Over the last year, the unemployment rate for workers without a high school degree fell 2.1 percentage points and for workers with just a high school degree by 1.7 percentage points. By contrast, the unemployment rate for college grads has only dropped by 0.2 percentage points. The unemployment rate for college grads is still more than a percentage point above its pre-recession level.
Overall, this is a very positive report, but it still must be understood in the context of the hole created by the downturn. It would take two and half years at this growth rate to restore demographically adjusted pre-recession levels of the employment to population ratio.

Paul Krugman issues a warning:

On Not Counting Chickens: A genuinely good employment report this morning... But — you knew there would be a but — good news can turn into bad news if it encourages complacency.
There will, predictably, be calls to respond to the good news by normalizing monetary policy, raising interest rates soon. And we will want to raise rates off zero at some point. But it’s important to say that (a) we are still highly uncertain about the underlying strength of the economy (b) the risks remain very asymmetric, with much more danger from tightening too soon than from tightening too late. ...
So still: the Fed should wait until it sees the whites of inflation’s eyes — and by inflation I mean inflation clearly above 2 percent, and if I had my way higher than that.

See also Calculated Risk (here and here).

Paul Krugman: Democrats Against Reform

Despite the political difficulties it has caused, Obamacare was not a mistake:

Democrats Against Reform, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s easy to understand why Republicans wish health reform had never happened.... But it’s more puzzling — and disturbing — when Democrats like Charles Schumer, senator from New York, declare that the Obama administration’s signature achievement was a mistake.
In a minute I’ll take on Mr. Schumer’s recent remarks. But first, an update on Obamacare..., which continues to rack up remarkable (and largely unreported) successes ... with more than 10 million people gaining coverage since last year. ... And ... a huge majority of the newly insured are pleased with their coverage...
What about costs? There were many predictions of soaring premiums. But... Premiums for 2014 came in well below expectations...
In short,... as a policy intended to improve American lives, it’s going really well. Yet it has not ... been a political winner for Democrats. Which brings us to Mr. Schumer.
The Schumer critique — he certainly isn’t the first to say these things... — calls health reform a mistake because it only benefits a minority of Americans, and that’s not enough to win elections. What President Obama should have done ... was focus on improving the economy as a whole.
This is deeply wrongheaded in at least three ways.
First, while it’s true that most Americans have insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, and employment-based coverage..., but what happens if you’re fired, or your employer goes bust, or it cancels its insurance program? What if you want to change jobs for whatever reason, but can’t find a new job that comes with insurance? ...
Second, whenever someone says that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy, my question is, what do you mean by that? Should he have tried for a bigger stimulus? I’d say yes, but ... especially after 2010 scorched-earth Republican opposition killed just about every economic policy he proposed. Do you think this would have been different without health reform? Seriously? ...
Finally, we need to ask, what is the purpose of winning elections? The answer, I hope, is to do good — not simply to set yourself up to win the next election. ....
And one related observation: If more Democrats had been willing to defend the best thing they’ve done in decades, rather than run away from their own achievement and implicitly concede that the smears against health reform were right, the politics of the issue might look very different today.

Links for 12-05-14

Thursday, December 04, 2014

'Who Pays for the Minimum Wage?'

Via Owen Zidar:

Who Pays for the Minimum Wage?: From Attila Lindner and  Péter Harasztosi:
This paper analyzes the effects of a large (~60%) and persistent increase in the minimum wage instituted in Hungary in 2001. We propose a new approach to estimating the employment effects of a minimum wage increase that exploits information on the distribution of wages before and after the policy change. We infer the number of jobs destroyed by comparing the number of pre-reform jobs below the new minimum wage to the excess number of jobs paying at (and above) the new minimum wage. Our estimates imply that the higher minimum wage had at most a small negative effect on employment, and so the main effect was pushing up wages. We then use data on a large panel of firms to evaluate the economic incidence of the minimum wage increase. Contrary to theoretical models that attribute the small employment effects of minimum wage changes to monopsonistic wage setting, we find no evidence that the rise in the minimum wage led to lower profitability among low-wage employers. Instead, we find that the costs of the minimum wage were largely passed through to consumers.

'Maths and Morals, Economics and Greed'

Tim Johnson, "a mathematician who works on financial problems":

Maths and morals, economics and greed: ... Mathematics has always been part of finance but with the re-introduction of derivatives markets in the 1970s and their growth in the nineties, ‘quants’, trained in engineering, physics and mathematics, came to dominate the ‘casino banking’ that is widely criticised. My concern is that the quants are not amenable to questions of morality, and so the problems of finance are going to be difficult to resolve without finding the right way of communicating with the bankers who see themselves as scientists. ...

The Chartered Institute of Bankers are working on Professional Standards but are struggling to engage with the quants, who operate the casino branch of banking, because the quants believe science is value neutral; it delivers truths beyond morality. ...
This brings to mind Alasdair MacIntyre's ‘disquieting suggestion’ that modern society has completely lost the ability to make moral judgements and I see it as the brick wall that most attempts to reform banking will crash into.

I believe the brick wall can be dismantled relatively easily: by recognising that many of the practices of contemporary finance associated with ‘casino banking’ were widespread before the eighteenth century. Unlike today, they were undertaken in the context not of consequentialist or deontological ethics, but of virtue ethics that focuses on good practice. It might seem surprising that I suggest this is a relatively easy approach. What make it easy is that rather than criticising modern finance on the basis that it is degraded from a mythic golden age of finance, the starting point is the doux-commerce thesis that finance is civilising. Rather than characterising bankers as amoral spivs, they are presented as paragons of rational morality and the approach gives the bankers the opportunity to carry on their activities while, critically, reconstructing their own ethos.  I developed this representation in my paper Reciprocity as a Foundation of Financial Economics.

The hurdle this approach needs to cross is that of the dominant ideologies of markets. The market ideology holds that the market mechanism will deliver optimal solutions to society, while anti-market ideology argues that profits are degrading and markets are destructive. The hurdle can be crossed by ignoring both these ideologies and analysing the role that money and markets have played in forming both Western science and democracy. We need to represent markets as centres of communication and deliberation, not as competitive arenas driven by profit maximisation. The clue is in the word forum, which defined both the market place and the political centre of a Roman city.

As I noted after a speech by William Dudley on the same topic, I am not so sure this will work, but it's interesting how much of the recent commentary on the problems in financial markets are focused on changing the ethics of the financial industry. I'd rather focus on regulation and enforcement -- real regulation and real enforcement, not what we had before the financial crisis -- and more importantly putting circuit breakers in place that will limit the damage should problems reoccur, as they surely will at some point now matter how much we regulate or what ethical structure is in place (e.g. limits on leverage and interconnectedness).