I thought that reporters had finally learned that monthly wage data are erratic and best ignored, but noooooooo, they apparently still believe that they give us real information about the rate of growth of wages. The immediate cause for complaint is a Morning Edition State of the Union fact check segment in which Scott Horsley told listeners that wages rose in November, but then fell in December.
As I tried to explain after the big wage jump in November was reported, the monthly changes are dominated by noise in the data. The 0.4 percent nominal wage rise reported in the month followed a month where the wage reportedly rose by just 0.1 percent and a prior month where it did not rise at all. Employer pay patterns in the economy as a whole do not change that much from month to month, it should have been obvious this was just noise in the data.
The wage drop reported in December should have further confirmed this. Horsley tried to explain the drop as a composition story, that we hired more people in lower paying industries. This is hard for two reasons. First, we added 48,000 jobs in the high-paying construction industry in December, compared to just 20,000 in November. We added only 7,700 jobs in the low-paying retail sector in December, compared to 55,700 jobs in November. In other words, the mix story seems to go the wrong way.
The other reason is the mix from month to month can only make a marginal difference in average wages. To see this, let's take an extreme case. The gap in pay between the construction sector and the overall average is just over $2 an hour. By contrast, pay in the leisure and hospitality sector is about $10 an hour less than the average. Suppose that we saw 100,000 new jobs in construction and no other jobs in any other sector. This is equal to approximately 0.07 percent of total employment. This means this jump in construction employment would raise wages by less that 0.2 cents an hour. By contrast, the surge in restaurant employment would lower the average hourly wage by 1.0 cent.
In other words, even these extraordinary shifts in composition would have no measurable effect on the pace of wage growth. Anyone looking to explain month to month changes in wages by job mix is looking in the wrong place. The only responsible way to report on the wage data is to take averages over longer periods, the monthly changes simply don't mean anything.
Other news sources just told us what the Republicans said in reaction to President Obama's State of the Union Address, National Public Radio told us what they really thought. Its top of the hours news summary on Morning Edition (sorry, no link) told listeners that Republicans "see it as more tax and spend."
Denmark has long cold rainy winters where the sun only shows up briefly. It is understandable that someone can get pretty sour living in these conditions. But that is no reason for the Washington Post to run scurrilous screeds from Scandinavia that inaccurately impugn the region.
That is a reasonable description of Michael Booth's Sunday Outlook piece, which managed to get most of the important points wrong in a piece titled, "Stop the Scandimania: Nordic nations are not the utopia they are made out to be."
Going in order of importance, Booth somehow thinks that the McDonald's workers in Denmark getting paid $20 an hour pay 75 percent of their income in taxes. He better try to explain that one to the OECD. It puts the tax rate for the average worker at 26.7 percent. Booth is apparently adding in the 25 percent valued added tax, which would still leave us just over 45 percent (the 25 percent tax is applied on 73.3 percent of income left over after-tax). That's pretty far from 75 percent.
Booth then turns to mocking the employment record of the Scandinavian countries:
"last month the Times assured us that 'A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia.' (*Cough* unemployment is 5.6 percent in the United States, vs. 8.1 percent in Sweden, 8.9 percent in Finland and 6.4 percent in Denmark.)"
According to the European Commission, the employment rate for people between the ages 20 and 64 is 73.3 percent in Finland, 79.8 percent in Sweden, and 75.6 percent in Denmark. All of which are above the 71.1 percent rate in the United States.
He then goes to Sweden, which he rightly attacks for its strong anti-immigrant movement, but then adds:
"This has distracted from the slowing economy, increasing state and household debt levels, and one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe."
Again, he'll have to explain his calculations to the folks who do this stuff for a living. The European Commission has a category for young people who are not working or in school or a training program. The share of young people in Sweden in this category about 7.5 percent, near the bottom of the European Union. As far as state indebtedness, the I.M.F. tells us the government has a deficit of about 2.0 of GDP and total debt equal to 42 percent of GDP, that less than 70 percent of the level in the United States.
Usually when a country takes steps to "defend" its currency, the problem is that the value of its currency is falling in world currency markets. This is most often due to higher inflation in the country in question, although the situation can be worsened by speculative attacks. Raising interest rates is a standard form of defense, since it makes it more desirable to hold assets denominated in that currency.
Against this normal pattern, the NYT told readers that Denmark was "defending" its currency by cutting interest rates. Apparently the problem is that the krone, Denmark's currency, was rising against the euro. The krone has been pegged against the euro since its inception. The recent upswing in its value threatened to push the krone above its designated range.
So in this case, the "defense" is intended to reduce the value of the currency, not to raise it.
The NYT ran an article headlined, "China's Economy Expands at Slowest Rate in Quarter Century." People who read the piece discovered that China's growth rate for 2014 was estimated at 7.4 percent, which is more than three times the growth rate projected for the United States. More strikingly, this is not much of a slowdown from the last two years.
The I.M.F. reports growth in both of these years was 7.7 percent. Measured as a share of growth, a drop from 7.7 percent to 7.4 percent in China would be equivalent to a drop from 2.0 percent to 1.92 percent in the United States. It's not clear that this sort of slowdown would draw headlines.
There are questions about the accuracy of China's growth data, but this article refers only to the reported numbers. These do not provide much a basis for talk of a major slowing of China's economy.
Paul Krugman is still upset over the decision by Switzerland's central bank to end its peg to the euro and allow the value of the Swiss franc to rise. Since some of us non-hyper-inflation worriers don't share his anger, perhaps it worth explaining the difference in views.
Krugman sees the peg as a sort of quantitative easing. He argues it was working (Switzerland's economy has largely recovered), so there was no reason to abandon it. He sees the basis for abandonment as a needless fear over inflation and possibly a concern about central bank losses. (The Swiss central bank is partly private. Sound familiar?)
Krugman may well be right about the reasons that Switzerland's central bank abandoned its peg, but that doesn't mean that it was wrong to do so.
Switzerland's peg was designed to promote its growth at the expense of its neighbors. The under-valued currency boosts the economy by making Swiss exports cheaper relative to the goods and services of its trading partners and making imports into Switzerland more expensive. In this story, Switzerland's growth is a direct subtraction from the growth of its trading partners.
This is not a big deal with a relatively small country like Switzerland, but imagine that Germany left the euro (hold the applause) and adopted the same policy of deliberately under-valuing the new mark against the euro. Germany would then run large trade surpluses and the other euro zone countries would run large deficits, draining away demand. Should we applaud this policy as a form of quantitative easing that needs to be supported?
Krugman's argument rests largely on the idea that we need to promote central bank credibility. I'm a bit more skeptical on this one. Central bank credibility is a two-edged sword. One of the main reasons that we are not supposed to pursue QE-type policies is the risk of inflation, which could undermine central bank credibility.
I would agree with Krugman that the risk of any serious outburst of inflation in the current economic situation is near zero, but of course it is not zero. And the risk of inflation in an economy with less demand and higher unemployment is lower than the risk in an economy with more demand and lower unemployment. This means that we do face more of a risk of inflation and damaging central bank credibility on keeping inflation low with QE than without.
For me, this is a no-brainer. How many parents of children should be unemployed so that everyone knows the Fed won't let the inflation rate get above 2.0? The answer would be very few, but if central bank credibility is some great good of enormous value, then the QE-foes may have a point.
I would keep credibility on the back burner here. Switzerland has a budget surplus and extremely low government debt. It should be running budget deficits to boost its economy and those of its neighbors. There is no reason we should be applauding its efforts to sustain demand in its economy at the expense of its neighbors.
A Washington Post article on President Obama's new willingness to push an economic agenda contrasted U.S. economic performance with "the anemic economies of Europe and Japan." It's not clear on what basis Japan's economy is supposed to be anemic compared with the U.S.
Its unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent in November, the most recent month for which data are available. Its employment rate has risen by two full percentage points since the end of 2012 when its new government shifted towards Keynesian expansionary policies. By comparison, the employment rate has risen by just 0.8 percentage points over the same period in the United States (it did rise by another 0.3 percentage points in the fourth quarter). The 1.2 percentage point difference for the period for which we have data from both countries would correspond to another 3 million people being employed in the United States.
It is also worth noting that the employment rate in Japan is 1.7 percentage points above its pre-recession level. In the United States it is more than 3.0 percentage points below its pre-recession level.
It isn't often that I think Paul Krugman gets one wrong, but I think he wrongly attacks those chocolate loving cuckoo clock making Swiss in his column today. His complaint is that the Swiss central bank abandoned its commitment to keep down the value of the Swiss franc against the euro. Krugman sees this a failure of will, with the central bank giving up a commitment to pursue an inflationary policy. This is part of a larger saga of feckless central banks that continue to obsess about inflation when the real problem facing world economies is an inflation rate that is too low.
While the general point is right, it is hard to see how this story applies to Switzerland. Switzerland did not see the same sort of downturn as the rest of the OECD in 2008. Furthermore, it has fully recovered from its downturn with a GDP that is 8 percent above its pre-recession level and an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent.
In this context, it is actually doing what we should want Switzerland to do as a good world citizen. By allowing its currency to rise, it will make its goods and services less competitive internationally. This means it will import more from its trading partners and export less, effectively providing them with an economic boost. This is what we should want to see. The countries that are at or near full employment should be running larger trade deficits or smaller surpluses.
So give the Swiss a gold star. They called this one right. (Now if we can get them to talk to China ....)
It's more than a bit bizarre that patent protection doesn't get a single mention in a NYT column on "why drugs cost so much." Of course without government granted patent monopolies the vast majority of drugs would sell for $5-$10 per prescription. And, drug companies would not have incentive to mislead the public about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.
The NYT has somehow decided that Japan needs budget discipline. It's not clear what the basis for this determination is, but the fourth paragraph of an article on Japan's latest budget proposal told readers:
"With the budget proposal, Japan is trying to balance its need for growth and discipline."
The markets apparently do not see the same need as the NYT. The current interest rate on 10-year government bonds is 0.25 percent.
Neil Irwin has an Upshot piece making the case for why we should expect to see wages rising soon. He noted a survey of employers showing more are planning to raise wages than in prior years. He also noted the promise by Aetna to place a floor of $16 an hour on its workers' pay.
However the main piece of evidence is a rise in the number of job opening to a high for the recovery. While this is indeed encouraging, there are three important qualifications that deserve mention.
First, the biggest rise in openings compared with pre-recession levels are in low-paying sectors like retail and restaurant employment. This may mean some shift from these low-paying sectors to higher paying sectors, but the high-paying sectors do not appear to be having trouble getting workers. One exception is the government sector, which has also returned to pre-recession levels of openings. This could reflect the deterioration in the pay and work conditions of government employees.
A second fact worth noting is that real wages were rising very modestly even before the recession. The last time we saw strong real wage growth was at the very beginning of the decade. This series began in December of 2000, just before the 2001 recession kicked in. But the job opening rate was higher in the three months preceeding the recession than the number released by the Labor Department this week, 3.6 percent in 2001 compared to 3.4 percent in November.
Finally, the quit rate at 1.9 percent is below the 2.1-2.2 percent pre-recession level and well below the 2.5 percent rate of 2000-2001. This means that workers still do not feel comfortable leaving their jobs.
Clearly the labor market is improving, but we likely still have a long way to go before most workers see real wage gains. The one wild card is that the Affordable Care Act, by allowing workers to get insurance outside of employment, may make workers more comfortable leaving jobs they don't like. This could lead the labor market to tighten up more quickly than otherwise would have been the case.
The folks setting economic policy in Europe have already inflicted massive damage on the continent, putting foreign enemies and natural disasters to shame. But the pain goes on.
The NYT reported on a preliminary ruling on the European Central Bank's (ECB) plans to buy government bonds by one of the advocates general at the Court of Justice of the European Union. According to the piece, the ruling authorized the ECB to buy government debt, but said:
"the central bank should not buy government bonds immediately after they are issued, to allow markets to determine a price."
The point of a bond buying program is to raise the price of bonds and push down interest rates below the market level. Also, it really doesn't matter whether the ECB buys the bonds directly from a government or from third parties after they are issued. In both cases it would be taking possession of the same share of the stock of outstanding debt, which is the relevant factor for determining bond prices and interest rates.
Can someone buy these folks an intro econ text?
In a Wonkblog piece Max Ehrenfreund wrongly described the Democrats proposal for a financial transactions tax as a major tax increase on investors. This is not true. Research shows that trading volume will decline roughly in proportion to the increase in transactions costs that result from this tax.
This means that if the tax increases trading costs by 50 percent, we would expect trading volume to decline by roughly 50 percent. This means that investors might pay 50 percent more for each trade, but since they only trade half as much, the total amount they spend on trading costs would be little affected. The cost of the tax would be borne almost entirely by the financial industry, not investors.
The NYT reported on the likelihood of a settlement between Standard and Poors and the Justice Department over accusations that S.&P. had effectively sold investment grade ratings to banks issuing mortgage backed securities (MBS) during the housing bubble years. The claim is that S.&P. knowingly gave ratings to MBS that they did not deserve because rating these issues was a major source of revenue to the company and it did not want to risk the business by giving out honest ratings.
This is a good time to mention the Franken Amendment to the Dodd-Frank bill which would have eliminated the incentive for the rating agencies to exaggerate the quality of MBS by taking the hiring decision away from the banks. Instead of directly hiring a rating agency, an issuer of MBS would contact the SEC, which would then determine which rating agency to assign to the job. While the amendment passed with overwhelming and bi-partisan support in the Senate, it was stripped out in the conference committee, apparently at the request of the Obama administration.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) then studied the issue for three years and decided that it was not up to the task of picking rating agencies after being inundated with comments from the industry. The gist of these comments was that the SEC might send over an agency that was not competent to rate the bond issue in question. This begs the obvious question of why would any bank be marketing a bond, the quality of which a professional auditor at one of the accredited rating agencies could not accurately assess? Nonetheless the amendment was killed and the pre-crisis system was preserved intact.
And, as economic theory would predict, there is evidence that the rating agencies are again lowering their standards to gain business.
The Washington Post reports that the Democrats have a new plan for middle class tax cuts that will be financed in part by a 0.1 percent tax on financial transactions like stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Since the financial industry and its employees will undoubtedly be pushing tirades telling us that this tax will kill middle class savers, BTP decided to call in Mr. Arithmetic to get his assessment of the issue.
Mr. Arithmetic points out that the amount of the tax born by savers will depend in large part on their response to the tax. Since research indicates that trading volume declines roughly in proportion to the increase in trading costs, this means that ordinary savers will bear almost none of the tax.
To see this point, imagine that our middle class saver has $100,000 in a 401(k). Suppose that 20 percent of it is traded every year and that the trading costs average 0.2 percent. This means that our saver is spending $40 a year on trading costs (0.2 percent of $20,000).
With the Democrats' proposal, trading costs will rise to 0.3 percent assuming that 100 percent of the tax is passed on in higher trading costs. (This is almost certainly an exaggeration, since the industry will probably not be able to pass the tax on in full.) If trading volume were unchanged, then this middle class saver would now pay $60 a year in trading costs (0.3 percent of $20,000).
However research shows that the folks managing the 401(k) will likely cut back their trading by roughly 50 percent in response to this 50 percent increase in trading costs. This would mean that only 10 percent of the 401(k) or $10,000 would be traded each year. In this case, the 401(k) holder would be paying just $30 a year in trading costs (0.3 percent of $10,000).
Instead of going up, trading costs actually fell. Since 401(k) holders don't on average make money on trading (for every winner there is a loser), they end up better off after the tax. Of course these numbers are approximations and it may well be the case that the decline in trading volume does not fully offset the increase in costs, but the point remains. The vast majority of this tax will fall on the financial industry (think Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and Robert Rubin). The middle class 401(k) holder will be largely unaffected.
Robert Samuelson uses his column today to tell readers that he is very unhappy with Paul Krugman. The specific complaint is that Krugman gives Paul Volcker credit for reducing inflation in the early 1980s, rather than Reagan. (Actually, I thought Krugman was giving Volcker credit for the recovery from the recession, which Krugman said was primarily due to lower Fed interest rates rather than Reagan tax cuts.)
Anyhow, Samuelson insists that Volcker has to share credit with Reagan, since Reagan gave him the political cover to carry through policies that pushed the unemployment rate to 10.8 percent and ruined millions of lives. I'm inclined to agree with Samuelson on this one. A different president might have put pressure on the Fed chair to back away before his policies had done so much damage.
Where Samuelson is wrong is in his characterization of the need for the Volcker policies. He tells readers:
"From 1960 to 1980, inflation — the general rise of retail prices — marched relentlessly upward. It went from 1.4 percent in 1960 to 5.9 percent in 1969 to 13.3 percent in 1979. The higher it rose, the more unpopular it became. People feared that their pay and savings wouldn’t keep pace with prices.
"Worse, government seemed powerless to defeat it."
Actually, the inflation picture was not quite as bad as Samuelson describes. He apparently is referring to the measure using the official consumer price index (CPI), which had a well-known measurement error (more in a moment) that led to an exaggerated measure of inflation. In fact the inflation rate using the now popular consumer expenditure deflator peaked at just over 11 percent.
Earlier in the week I took the environmental movement to task for its lack of interest in pay by the mile auto insurance. I consider it a major failing because this one should be a relative freeby in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In contrast to a carbon tax or cap and trade mechanism, it doesn't raise the price on average, it just changes the incentive structure. And in doing so, it can have a large impact in reducing driving. If the average insurance policy costs $1,000 a year, and people drive 10,000 miles on average, then this converts to a fee of 10 cents a mile. If a car gets 20 miles per gallon, shifting to pay by the mile insurance would have the same incentive effect in reducing driving as a $2.00 a gallon gas tax.
Also, unlike a carbon tax, which is really bad news for the oil and coal industries, insurers could still make plenty of money with pay the mile insurance. The only real obstacle for them is inertia. After all, why should they change the way they sell insurance just to save the planet?
And, pay by the mile also has the great advantage that insurance is regulated at the state level. This means that if the enviros concentrated their forces on a green-friendly state, they should be able to win support for pay by the mile policies. And, with adverse selection going the right way (low-mileage, low accident drivers go into the pay by the mile pool, driving up the cost of conventional policies), it shouldn't be too hard to quickly get most of a state's drivers into pay by the mile policies. If one state could go this route and substantially reduce miles driven, then others could follow.
Anyhow, several people wrote comments and e-mails complaining that the environmentalists have in fact been pushing for pay by the mile insurance. I can't say I'm aware of everything enviros do, but anything they do on pay by the mile certainly is not as visible as something like the effort on the Keystone pipeline. (Which is worth opposing.)
Mark Brucker, one of my correspondents, sent along a list of relevant pieces for those who might be interested:
David Leonhardt has a good discussion of many of the issues surrounding President Obama's proposal to make community college free. He concludes the piece by noting that we likely need a more educated work force now than in the last century, then adds:
"If nine years of free education was the sensible norm for the masses in the 19th century and 13 years was the sensible norm in the early 20th century, what is the right number in the 21st century?
"Our current system suggests that the answer is still 13. The performance of our economy suggests otherwise."
Actually almost all of the people who are involved in designing and implementing economic policy have had far more than 13 years of education. The economists who were unable to recognize the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy all had well over 20 years of education. Even members of Congress who don't understand basic economics (e.g. spending creates demand) almost all have had 17 years of education and many have law degrees or other post-college degrees.
The problems of our economy seem to stem from inept economic policy. We don't have any source of demand to replace the demand generated by the housing bubble. If Leonhardt is claiming the economy's problems stem from a poorly educated workforce he does not support this with any evidence.
As Paul Krugman likes to point out, conservative leaders have a bad habit of just making things up: global warming isn't happening, tax cuts pay for themselves, quantitative easing will lead to hyper-inflation etc.. David Leonhardt tells readers that at the Upshot section of the NYT, which he edits, they are committed to calling both sides out when the facts don't support their claims.
And he is taking the occasion to beat up on liberals on the relationship between marriage and happiness. He proudly calls attention to a new study that purports to show that married couples are happier on average than people who are not married, and this is even after controlling for states of happiness before they were married.
It's not clear exactly what liberal view Leonhardt thinks he is challenging. There is an obvious survivor bias in a long marriage. We expect that people in unhappy marriages are less likely to stay married, so this study has effectively found that people in happy stable relationships are happier on average than people not in happy stable relationships. Are there liberals who feel it is important to argue that this is not true?
There is a problem that liberals, like any believer in logic, may have with policy prescriptions that could be mistakenly based on this finding. For example, it certainly does not follow, based on this research, that the government should make it more difficult for couples to divorce. The point is that happy couples are happier, if we forced unhappy couples to remain married, it does not follow that they would be happier than if they were separated.
We may also think that the government should foster happy couples by having subsidies for marriage. But this effectively amounts to penalizing the people who are already unhappy because they are single. After all, someone has to pay for these subsidies, which means that on average we would have money flowing from already unhappy single people to our happy couples. Is this good policy?
It's also not clear that there is importance to marriage as opposed to a stable relationship. In the U.K. (where the subjects for the study lived), like the U.S., most people in stable relationships tend to get married. However in other countries this is not a cultural norm. Are we supposed to believe the sheet of paper makes people happy? Did the Wizard of Oz make the straw man smart when he handed him a diploma?
The Washington Post article on the December jobs numbers told readers:
"Though there were nascent signs of wage growth in November, the data from December showed average hourly earnings slid backward by five cents, to $24.57.
"That wage decrease over the past month, a surprise to economists, indicates that the nation has not yet reached 'full employment' — a condition in which demand from employers is broad enough that workers have a degree of leverage and a chance to see pay raises."
This comment earns a really big OY!
No, the drop in average hourly earnings should not have been a surprise to economists. As some of us were screaming following the November jump in hourly wages, the monthly data are erratic. As I pointed out at the time, the jump reported in November followed two months of very weak wage growth. It simply is not plausible to think that millions of employers who were being tightfisted September and October suddenly got really generous with their workers in November. The world doesn't work that way.
The more obvious explanation is that the monthly changes are driven largely by measurement error. A weak number in one month is likely to lead to a strong number the next (and vice versa) because a weak number likely understated the true rate of wage growth. If the next month's number then accurately measures the true wage, then it will appear like a large jump. This is a regular pattern that anyone who follows the data (e.g. economists) would know.
The point about full employment is also seriously off. The employment to population ratio is still close to four percentage points below its pre-recession level. And, contrary to the protestations about this being due to the retirement of the baby boomers, the decline is largely due to prime age workers (age 25-54) leaving the labor force. And it's a bit hard to believe that all these people in their 30s and 40s just decided they no longer feel like working. In addition, the number of people involuntarily working part-time is still up by more than 2 million from its pre-recession level.
In other words, we are still very far from what would have been considered full employment back in the good old days of the Bush presidency. Folks should be very upset if the Fed starts raising interest rates to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs.
This piece also misleads readers in saying:
"Another strong sector was professional and business services — accountants, architects, consultants — which added 52,000 positions. The pick-up in better-paying industries is in noted contrast to periods earlier in the recovery, when growth was concentrated in part-time positions and the retail and health sectors."
Actually, most of the growth in the professional and business services sector (67.7 percent) was in the relatively low-paying administrative and waste services categories.
The NYT badly misinformed readers by telling them that Obama was easing up on Federal Housing Authority lending rules to fix a "lagging" housing market. Actually home sales are slightly above their population adjusted pre-bubble level. In fact, if we took account of demographics (the increasing portion of elderly that is constantly used as a justification of low employment rates) then house sales are above pre-bubble levels. Also, inflation-adjusted house prices are 15-20 percent above trend levels.
It is true that builders are not building as many homes as would be expected, but this is explained by vacancy rates that are still relatively high. The lower homeownership rate is likely the function of the weak labor market and also that the "flexible" labor market touted by most economists means that people have to change jobs frequently, which often means moving. People who have to sell their home shortly after buying it end up building wealth for the real estate and financial industry, not their family, which is an important reason why fewer people are becoming homebuyers.
This piece also wrongly asserts that, "rents are soaring." This is not true by the usual definition of "soaring." The Bureau of Labor Statistics owners' equivalent rent measure rose 2.7 percent over the last year. This measure excludes utility fees that are often included in apartment rents, which is appropriate since homeowners also have to pay for utilities.
Owners' Equivalent Rent: Percent Change Over Prior 12 Months