The Morning Edition piece on President Obama's new mortgage refinancing proposal implied that the housing market is a major drag on the economy. This is misleading.

The housing bubble was the motor of the economy during the last business cycle. It did this both by leading to a construction boom and by propelling consumption through the creation of $8 trillion of ephemeral equity. Now that the bubble has burst it can no longer play this role, however it is inaccurate to describe it as a drag on the economy.

 

Addendum:

Since the comments suggest some confusion, let me be clear on what I mean by housing is not a drag on the recovery. The graph below shows real expenditures on residential construction over the last two years.

Book1_12807_image002

                                 Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Note the direction that spending on residential construction (sorry, mislabeled the graph) has been going. That's right, it has been going up! This is why some of us say that housing is not a drag on the recovery.

Now will housing be the force that leads out of the recovery? No, and it would be extremely foolish to expect otherwise, as I have written about endlessly. We got into this downturn because of the housing bubble. This led to a huge amount of overbuilding of housing. It will take years to wind this down to a more normal level.

This is exact opposite of a typical recovery which is led by housing. That is because a typical recession is caused by the Fed raising rates to slow the economy. That has the effect of slowing housing construction. When the Fed decides to take its foot off the break and lower interest rates to boost the economy, there is major pent up demand, which leads to a boom in housing. That is not the story here.

The wealth created by the housing bubble also led to a consumption boom. This is the long-known and widely forgotten housing wealth effect. This consumption boom is also not coming back for the simple reason that the housing bubble is not coming back.

Okay, so the collapse of the housing bubble caused the recession, which I probably have said more than any other person on the planet. But, at the moment housing is not a drag on the economy, it is adding to growth, even if it is not adding as much as we might like.

The Washington Post distinguished itself during the run-up of the housing bubble by relying on David Lereah, the chief economist with the National Association of Realtors, and author of Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust and How You Can Profit from It, as its main source on the real estate market. It seems that it is continuing its policy of not using anyone knowledgeable about the housing market as a source for its articles on housing.

Its piece on President Obama's new plan for mortgage refinancing implies that house prices will somehow rise back to their bubble levels. People who know about the housing market would tell readers that this would be like expecting the Nasdaq to bounce back to 5000 following its crash in 2000-2002. Unfortunately such voices continue to be excluded from the Post's coverage of the housing market.

People who report on Germany's economy should know that the unemployment rate reported by the government is not calculated the same way as the U.S. unemployment rate. It includes people who are working part-time but would like full-time jobs as being unemployed. This means that the rate reported by the government is not directly comparable to the U.S. rate. This means that the NYT misled readers when it told them that Germany's unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in January.

However, the OECD does publish unemployment rates for Germany that are calculated in a similar manner to the U.S. unemployment rate. By this measure, Germany's unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in November. Assuming that the OECD rate followed the same path as the German government rate, German's unemployment rate would be 5.3-5.4 percent today if calculated on a comparable basis to the U.S. rate.

Steven M. Davidoff had a Dealbook column complaining about a Dodd-Frank regulation that he argues is slowing the supply of capital to finance corporate takeovers. The issue in question is a requirement that the creator of a collaterized loan obligation (CLO) keep a 5 percent stake in the issue. Davidoff argues that many issuers of CLO's are relatively small businesses and don't have the capital to allow them to hold a 5 percent stake.

He then asks:

"So why add a new regulatory burden? It’s unclear what benefit a “skin in the game” rule would provide, given that C.L.O.’s are more akin to commercial loans, for which Dodd-Frank deems risk-retention rules unnecessary."

The answer is that financial firms can make money by misrepresenting the products they sell. Those who are good at misrepresentation can get very rich. While some misrepresentations may be in violation of the law, it is often difficult to prove that misrepresentations were made to sell a product. This makes even civil litigation difficult, criminal prosecution is rare.

Forcing the creators of CLO's to keep a stake is a way to help ensure that they consider the asset they have created to be good. In principle, the sophisticated institutional investors who buy stakes in CLO's should be able to assess their quality themselves, however one lesson from the housing bubble is that they seem to lack this ability. 

A Morning Edition segment on the recent European Union summit was headlined, "Most EU Nations to Sign Pact to Stop Overspending." This is both flat-out wrong and misleading.

It is flat-out wrong because the pact restricts deficits, not spending. It is misleading because it implies that the current crisis was caused by overspending. It wasn't. Most of the crisis countries had declining debt to GDP ratios before the downturn and two, Spain and Ireland, were actually running budget surpluses. The problem was caused by housing bubbles and the inept management of the economy by the European Central Bank.

That should have been the headline to the NYT story on Florida governor Rick Scott, if they got their facts right. While it is common for politicians to make big promises and not come through, the NYT reports that Rick Scott is not expecting to even get Florida back to its pre-recession level of employment after 7 years in office.

According to the according to the article, Scott promised to create 700,000 jobs after 7 years in office. If Florida follows this path, it will have 7,862,000 jobs in January of 2018, more than 200,000 less than its pre-recession peak of 8,071,000 jobs in March of 2007. If Florida actually has 2.5 percent fewer jobs in 2018 than it did in 2007, then it is likely to rank near or at the bottom among states in job creation.

florida_jobs

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead of calling readers to attention to the meekness of the governor's promise, it effectively did a PR pitch for his performance, telling readers:

"And he has started to deliver. In the past year, more than 100,000 private-sector jobs have been created, and the state ranks third in job growth behind California and Texas, according to the latest Labor Department data."

Of course it should not be terribly surprising that Florida ranks third in job growth, since it is the fourth largest state in population, less than 3 percent behind third place New York.

Imagine George Foreman got up off the floor after being counted out in his fight with Muhammad Ali and started taking wild swings at the champ. This is what Mark Whitehouse, a member of Bloomberg View editorial board, effectively did in a column yesterday.

In response to a Paul Krugman column pointing out that the UK's austerity package has led to a virtual recession, making the current downturn worse for the UK than the Great Depression, Whitehouse calls attention to the decline in the price of credit default swaps on UK debt relative to euro zone countries. He touts the fact that lower interest rate on UK debt will make it easier for the country to get its deficits down to a manageable level.

The missing elephant from Whitehouse's story is that the price of credit default swaps on everyone's debt has fallen relative to the euro zone countries. The relative decline in interest rates on UK debt doesn't speak to the wise policies of the UK government, but rather the foolishness of the European Central Bank, which has done its best to convince markets that it will not act as a lender of last resort and will actually let euro zone countries default on their debt. 

The key issue here is having a central bank that will act as a lender of last resort. This is the reason that not only the United States, but Canada, Sweden, Denmark and even fiscally prudent Japan all enjoy lower interest rates than the UK.

[Thanks to Jim Naureckas for calling this one to my attention.]

In a major business section article on President Obama's plans to address inequality, the Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) came down squarely on the side of the Republicans. The Republican slant starts with the headline, "Obama's push to revive middle class will clash with long-term trends." This one undoubtedly had people all over the metro area saying, "duh."

Of course it will clash with long-term trends, that would be the point. No one thinks that the 1 percent just got all of our money yesterday. The process of upward redistribution has been going on for more than three decades.

After outlining the basic issues, the Post tells readers:

"Republicans, both in Congress and on the campaign trail, favor a far different approach than Obama has embraced. They generally regard government efforts to promote equality and strengthen the middle class as counterproductive. By this thinking, reducing taxes and shrinking the government’s role in the economy will free up capital that entrepreneurs can invest, creating good new jobs."

Actually, the Post has no idea how Republicans "regard" government efforts to promote equality. Nor does it know whether in their "thinking" lower taxes for the wealthy actually translates into "good new jobs."

What the Post knows is what Republican politicians and spokespeople say. A serious newspaper sticks to what is visible and knowable, it does not do mind reading for the benefit of its readers.

The piece also includes a number of assertions that are unsupported by anything. For example, it tells readers:

"But it is not clear that the measures [those proposed by President Obama]— or any others — could compensate for the factors behind the decline of the middle class, including the rise of nations with abundant cheap labor and the development of new technologies that allow companies to operate with far fewer workers."

Actually, the abundant supply of cheap labor could do much to make middle class workers wealthier if it were allowed to compete freely with the most highly educated workers in the United States. There is no shortage of smart people in China, India, and other developing countries who could train to be doctors in the United States. If we eliminated the barriers that make it difficult for foreign doctors who meet U.S. standards from practicing in the United States, it would would substantially reduce the pay of physicians.

If the salaries of doctors fell to European levels it would mean a dividend for the middle class (in the form of lower health care bills) of close to $100 billion a year, almost twice the amount at stake in extending President Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy. There would be comparable gains from opening up law and other high-paying professions to people from the developing world.

The reason that globalization has put downward pressure on the living standards of the middle class is that it has been deliberate policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations to force middle class workers to compete with their low-paid counterparts in the developing world, while protecting the most highly educated workers from the same competition. The predicted and actual result of this policy has been an enormous upward redistribution of income.

A serious piece on inequality would have made this point. It also would have discussed other ways in which conscious policy decisions (e.g. greater legal hostility to unions) have resulted in upward redistribution, instead of telling readers it was all just the natural workings of the economy.

Even though the data on income show the top 1 percent of the population pulling away from everyone else, New York Times columnist David Brooks tells us that focusing on the 1 percent is a "distraction." He bases this assertion on, well absolutely nothing.

Brooks goes to tell readers that:

"the truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive."

This is striking for two reasons. Since his upper tribe is the whole top 20 percent, much of this group that has become phenomenally productive has seen little benefit from their productivity. Wages for the second decile have risen over the last three decades, but not by very much.

The other part of the story is that this group has made itself phenomenally productive largely through its control of the political process. For example, it has used the political process to get an implicit government guarantee for too big to fail banks that can pay its top executives phenomenal amounts of money. It maintains protectionist barriers for doctors, lawyers and other highly educated professionals that allow their pay to soar relative to workers who must compete in the international economy. And it has garnered ever stronger patent protection that has shifted income from ordinary workers to those able to earn patent rents.

It was control over the political process that has allowed the 1 percent to profit at everyone else's expense. Their productivity, whether phenomenal or not, was secondary.

Japan is a densely populated country. As a result, housing is extremely expensive in its major cities. Its subway system is so crowded that Tokyo has people who push people into the subway cars to ensure that no space is wasted.

Given this situation, it was striking to see that the Independent report on Japan's "demographic crisis" and ABC News tell us about Japan's "dire picture." Their concern is that Japan's population is projected to shrink by about a third over the next 50 years.

While these news outlets might be terrified by the prospect that the Japanese will pay less for housing, it is not clear why the Japanese should have such concerns. The implication is that the increase in the ratio of retirees to workers will impose a devastating burden on the working population.

Those who know arithmetic don't share such concerns. Productivity growth in Japan has averaged almost 2.0 percent annually over the last two decades. At this rate, output per worker hour will be nearly 170 percent higher in 50 years.

This means that if retirees consume 80 percent as much as active workers, and the ratio of workers to retirees fall from 2.5 today to 1.8 in 50 years, then consumption per worker and per retiree can increase by 120 percent over this period, assuming no reduction in hours worked.

In fact, this would understate the actual gain in living standards since there will be fewer children to support and there will also be gains in living standards associated with less crowding. (Tokyo won't need to pay workers to push people into subway cars.)

In short, worrying about demographics might be a good way to create jobs in the current economic environment, it need not be a concern for serious people.

 

[Thanks to Keane Bhatt and Victor Silberman.]

By Mark Weisbrot

An article in Saturday’s New York Timesclaimed that Brazil had “tripled its per capita income over the past decade.”  In fact, Brazil’s real per capita income (per capita GDP) has grown by about 30 percent from 2001-2011.  

The article notes that “some of that increase has to do with its [Brazil’s ] overvalued currency”, but (1) even this cannot account for the vast difference between 200 percent and 30 percent, and (2) even if it all of this “growth” were due to currency appreciation, the measure used would still be wrong.  Brazilians earn and spend about 90 percent of their income in domestic currency;  the correct measure of their income growth is therefore in their own currency, adjusted for inflation. That has grown about 30 percent per capita over the decade.

Brazil would look like quite a different country today if it had really tripled its per capita income over the past ten years.

The article also presents a somewhat misleading impression of Brazil as compared with Argentina, which is common in the media, where Brazil “now flexes its economic muscle,” and “Argentina is the dean of the club of nations utterly obsessed with their decline” (an Argentine scholar quoted in the article).  Although the article notes that Argentina had a “robust recovery after defaulting on its debts,” the reader is left with the impression that Brazil has been an economic success story as compared with Argentina.

The chart below shows real per capita income in Argentina compared with Brazil (on a purchasing power parity basis).  It can be seen that, even though Brazil has greatly increased its growth rate since 2004, Argentina has pulled ahead so rapidly since in recent years that the gap has widened enormously.  Income per person is now about 40 percent higher in Argentina than in Brazil. Since income is much more unequally distributed in Brazil than Argentina, this income gap means an even wider gap for the poor and the majority of the population.

Per Capita Income: Argentina and Brazil

argentina_vs_brazil_ppp

Source: World Bank.

In a piece that supported imposing a Buffet-rule type tax on the wealthy, Robert Samuelson explained the growing income share of the 1 percent in part on the booming stock market. He told readers:

"From 1980 to 2000, stocks rose almost tenfold; from 2000 to 2007, the gain was about 40 percent."

While the first part is roughly correct, the S&P 500 rose by just 3.5 percent from 2000 to 2007. According to his source, it averaged 1427.22 in 2000. Its average close in 2007 was 1477.19.

It's good to see Samuelson get the story straight that a higher capital gains tax will not hurt growth. (The Buffet rule would effectively raise the capital gains tax rate.) But he could make his arguments better if he got his numbers right.

You have to love Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post's oped page. The country is suffering through the worst downturn in 80 years. Tens of millions of people are unemployed or underemployed. Millions are facing the prospect of losing their homes. And tens of millions of baby boomers are looking at a retirement where they will be entirely dependent on their Social Security and Medicare.

With this state of affairs, they naturally rise to the occasion by denouncing politicians for being insufficiently attentive to "needed Medicare and Social Security reform." Of course, people familiar with the Congressional Budget Office's projections for Social Security know that there is no need for Social Security reform. The projections show the program will be fully solvent for the next quarter century even if no changes are made. Even after it is first projected to face a shortfall in 2038 it would still be able to pay more than 80 percent of projected benefits. It is difficult to see why dealing with a projected distant and modest shortfall should be a priority given the economy's current situation.

As all policy wonks know, the problem with Medicare is the problem of U.S. health care costs which are more than twice as high per person as the average for other wealthy countries. Therefore the issue should be fixing the health care system. If the United States faced the same per person health care costs as other wealthy countries we would be looking at huge budget surpluses in the long-term, not deficits.

Towards the end of the piece we are told:

"If America doesn’t tackle its debt problem, everything else is at risk: economic growth, the safety net for the poor, investment in research and roads."

Yeah, things might get bad if we don't start taking the Post's concerns about Social Security and Medicare seriously. It would be great if the Post's oped staff could get access to government data on unemployment, housing equity and family wealth.  

It is apparently hard to get information about Japan's economy at the Wall Street Journal. That is what readers must think after seeing an article about Japan's debt that say:

"after decades of undisciplined spending, government debts are more than twice the size of the nation's annual economic output."

Of course there were not decades "decades of undisciplined spending." In fact Japan was running large surpluses through the 80s and into the 90s. If the WSJ had access to IMF data (it's free folks), they would know this. It only began running deficits in response to the downturn following the collapse of the bubble.

Arguably the deficits were too small, not too large, since they did not get the economy back to full employment and did not prevent prices from falling. If there was any "undisciplined spending," it was by the banks that pumped up the stock and housing bubbles in the 80s.

It's unfortunate that people who actually do business deals might think that they are getting information from the Wall Street Journal. It had an article warning readers that:

"demand for loans hints at deflation."

There was actually not a single item in the article that suggested in any way whatsoever that prices would be falling. The piece did present some evidence of weakening loan demand, which would imply slower economic growth, but there was zero, nada, nothing to suggest that prices were about to start falling.

It is also worth noting that small rates of deflation are of no particular consequence. It would be better for the economy to have a higher rate of inflation right now in order to reduce the real interest rate and household debt burdens. However a decline in the inflation rate from 0.5 percent to -0.5 percent is of no more consequence than a decline from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

WSJ reporters should know this.

There is a big market in defending the One Percent these days and the Post is rising to the challenge. It presented a front page Outlook piece by James Q. Wilson that tells readers that inequality is not a really big deal because of the all the mobility in U.S. society. Furthermore, it tries to tell us we would be worse off with less inequality because inequality fell in Greece over the last three decades.

Wilson's main source for his claims about mobility is a study from the St. Louis Fed which in turn relies on data from a study from President Bush's Treasury Department. Wilson tells us that less than half of the people in the top one percent were still there 10 years later. This reflects the findings of the study. However 75 percent of the top one percent were still in the top 5 percent 10 years later and almost 83 percent were in the top ten percent.

Much of the mobility found in this study was likely simply the result of life-cycle effects. Earnings peak between ages 45 and 65. If we assume that people in these age groups are twice as likely to be in the top one percent as people who are younger or older, then we would expect 25 percent of the people in the top one percent to fall to a lower income category over a 10 year period simply because they have aged out of their peak earnings years.

Unlike most other studies of income mobility, the Treasury study did not restrict itself to prime earners (ages 25-55 at the start of the 10-year period). This would lead it to find greater mobility than other studies. Also, since this study is based on tax filing, some of the mobility may reflect the ability of individuals to game the tax system so that they show very low income in either the first or last year. If had restricted itself to the 25-55 age group it like would have found less mobility. [Thanks Stuart.]

Wilson's claim about Greece as an example of a country that has not seen an increase in inequality is the sort of argument by anecdote that people make when the data will not support their case. There were other countries, such as France, which have not seen an increase in inequality without obvious negative economic impacts. In fact, the rise in inequality across most European countries has been quite modest over the last three decades.

In addition, the most obvious factor that undermined Greece's economy seems to have been its decision to join the euro. This prevented it from allowing its currency to devalue in order to remain competitive. It is difficult to see how greater inequality would have improved its situation. Furthermore, since one of the country's main problems is a huge amount of tax evasion, data on income inequality is probably not very reliable.

It is also worth noting that this piece exclusively discusses the loser liberalism approach of taxing the income of the top 1 percent to redistribute income to the rest of the population. It does not address an agenda of reversing the policies that lead to the enormous upward redistribution of the last three decades. The Post appears to have a ban of any discussion of this approach.

The Washington Post reminded readers why it is known as Fox on 15th Street when it referred to an agreement among European leaders that it said would "limit the perennial budget deficits that are the root of the crisis."

Both parts of this statement are demonstrably false. Of the five countries now facing an imminent debt crisis, only Greece and Portugal had consistent deficit problems prior to the economic collapse in 2008. Italy had a declining ratio of debt to GDP and Spain and Ireland were running budget surpluses.

The root of the crisis was a speculative bubble in the real estate markets in Spain, Ireland and much of the rest of Europe. With few exceptions, the people who profited from this bubble and the people in policy positions who let it go unchecked are still in the same positions as they were before the crisis. Like the Post, many of them are trying to shift blame to profligate government spending. 

In a column that repeats the usual Thomas Friedman line about all the barriers between countries coming down in the brave new world (while conveniently ignoring the barriers that protect highly paid professionals like doctors and lawyers, allowing them to earn far more than their counterparts elsewhere in the world), he approvingly quotes Michael Dell:

"'I always remind people that 96 percent of our potential new customers today live outside of America.' That’s the rest of the world. And if companies like Dell want to sell to them, he added, it needs to design and manufacture some parts of its products in their countries."

The statement Friedman attributes to Dell implies the exact opposite of his "world is flat" story. Dell is saying that he must design and manufacture a portion of the products he sells in the countries he sells them. This implies that there are political barriers to complete mobility, which would mean that Dell could manufacture and design his products wherever it is cheapest to do, regardless of where he sells them. 

Friedman's quote from Dell indicates  that protectionist restrictions are still an important reality in the world. Presumably the logical response would be to either try to reduce these barriers in other countries or to adjust our trade policies to ensure that they work best for the United States in a world that is clearly not flat. 

Yes, they noticed the role of inventories. It is still possible to find workers with the necessary skills in the United States.

When the Mets were an expansion team in 1962 and on their way to losing a record 120 games, their manager Casey Stengel reportedly cried out in frustration after a Mets error, "can't anybody here play this game?" Readers of the coverage of the 4th quarter GDP report must have felt the same way. 

Most of the coverage was along the same lines as the Washington Post headline, "U.S. Economic Recovery Picks Up Pace." At the most basic level, this is true. GDP grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate, up from 1.8 percent in the third quarter and its strongest showing since the second quarter of 2010. However a closer examination of the data indicated that there was little cause for celebration.

There are always a number of random factors that will affect measured GDP in any given quarter. Often they average out so that the measured GDP is pretty much in line with what we may view as the underlying rate of growth. Sometimes they don't average out so that the headline number might be notably better or worse than the economy's underlying growth rate. This is the situation for the last two quarters.

The most obvious wildcard in GDP numbers is inventory changes. These are erratic. Sometimes they reflect conscious decisions of firms to build-up or run-down inventories. Sometimes firms accumulate inventories because they didn't sell as much as expected. Sometimes it is just the timing of when items get counted in stock.

Whatever the cause, inventory fluctuations often have a very large impact on GDP growth. And, this impact is often reversed in the following quarter. (The impact on growth is the change in the change. If inventories grow by $50 billion in both the third and fourth quarters then inventories add zero to growth. The $50 billion growth in inventories only boosts growth in the fourth quarter if we added less than $50 billion in the third quarter.)

This is worth noting because more than the entire difference between the third quarter growth rate and the fourth quarter growth rate can be explained by the movement in inventories. Inventories subtracted 1.35 percentage points from growth in the third quarter, when they rose at just a $5.5 billion annual rate. They added 1.95 percentage points to growth in the fourth quarter when they rose at a strong $63.6 billion annual rate.

Needless to say, this speedup in the rate of inventory accumulation will not continue. In future quarters inventories are likely to grow at a somewhat slower pace. In the absence of this inventory growth we would have been looking at 0.9 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter.

Fortunately, there were a couple of items on the other side which will certainly not be repeated. Defense spending fell at a 12.5 percent annual rate, lopping 0.73 percentage points off growth for the quarter. Defense spending is heading downward with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but certainly not at 12.5 percent annual rate. This just reflects the erratic timing of defense expenditures.

Similarly the category of housing and utilities showed a sharp drop in the quarter, reducing growth by 0.4 percentage points. This is a measure of the rental value of housing, it can only fall if fewer homes are occupied. The likely cause of the sharp drop was better than usual weather, which means less spending on utilities. This drop will almost certainly be reversed in the first quarter of 2012.

However, there is one more negative in the picture. Car sales grew at a 48.1 percent annual rate, adding 0.81 percentage points to growth in the quarter. This was largely a reversal of a decline earlier in the year that resulted from shortages due to the earthquake in Japan. It is not going to be repeated. Car sales will add much less to growth in 2012.

 GDP_Q4_29824_image002

                         Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

The long and short is that there was likely little change in the underlying rate of growth from the third quarter to the fourth quarter. The winding down of the stimulus, coupled with the negative impact from the Japan earthquake brought growth to a near halt in the first half of the year.

Now that the stimulus has almost fully unwound we are back on a growth path of around 2.5 percent -- pretty much the economy's trend rate of growth. This means that we are making up little or none of the ground lost during the recession. That is a really bad story.

 

It seems more likely that the issue is the latter. The Atlantic had a column headlined:

"unions hate private equity, but they love its profits."

However as the Economist points out (cited in the update), it is not clear that limited partners, like pension funds, actually do better investing in profit equity than investing in stock index funds. There may be an issue with specific officials getting kickbacks from private equity funds, but it is not clear that unions in general would be happy about private equity funds giving them returns that trail major stock indexes.


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