Yes folks, the news just keeps getting worse. The NYT had an article touting India's economic prospects, which it contrasts with China. It told readers:

"China’s investigations of multinationals, persistent tensions with neighboring countries and surging blue-collar wages have prompted many companies to start looking elsewhere for large labor forces."

The piece also includes a box with a figure showing that the number of people in China between the ages of 15-24 (prime factory worker age) is projected to fall from 250 million in 2009 to roughly 160 million in 2019. It adds the information that, "a sharp increase in college attendance has made the problem more acute." Needless to say, this story is being told from the standpoint of businesses seeking low cost labor.

It's fine for the NYT to run such pieces, but it would also be worth having a piece that described the impact that surging blue collar wages and a sharp increase in college attendance are having on the standard of living of hundreds of millions of people in China. From the standpoint of businesses looking for cheap labor this might be bad news, but from the standpoint of those who would like to see poor people lifted out of poverty, this sounds like very encouraging news. It would be great to see more coverage from the NYT from the perspective of workers in China. 

A NYT piece on the release of new data showing Japan's economy grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter gave an excessively pessimistic view of Japan's economic performance under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The article tells readers:

"The economy did not grow at all in 2014, with two quarters of recession almost exactly canceling out two quarters of expansion, according to Monday’s report. Growth in the two years since Mr. Abe began his campaign has added up to a modest 1.6 percent, slightly less than the 1.8 rate recorded in 2012, the year before he took office."

As the article notes, the reason the economy did not grow in 2014 was because of a sharp increase in the sales tax that had been planned before Abe took office. While it says that the resulting downturn was a surprise to economists, this is exactly what standard economics would predict. The sales tax increase was clearly foolish policy (Abe has put off another hike that had been scheduled this year), but the economy clearly would have grown at a healthy pace in the absence of this rate hike.

It is also worth noting that Japan's employment to population ratio (EPOP) rose by 2.2 percentage points from the fourth quarter of 2012, when Abe came to power, to the fourth of 2014. By comparison, the EPOP in the United States has risen by 1.1 percentage point over the same period. News reports have been nearly ecstatic over the rate of job growth in the United States.

That would have an appropriate headline for a NYT article on the fact that many members of Congress may refuse to support fast-track trade authority without some rules on currency. At one point it refers to comments by Bruce Josten, a senior lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and supporter of fast-track, who argued that the administration could not effectively write rule on currency values:

"Would the Federal Reserve’s program of 'quantitative easing' — basically printing money to keep interest rates low — be an actionable offense under a strict currency regime? What about large government spending programs financed by international borrowing?"

It is difficult to believe that anyone involved in these negotiations would have difficulty distinguishing between policies explicitly focused on boosting the U.S. economy and policies that have the explicit purpose of lowering the value of the dollar. (If Mr. Josten is confused, quantitative easing is when the Fed buys U.S. government bonds. If the main purpose was to lower the value of the dollar the Fed would be buying the bonds of other countries.)

Fred Bergsten and Joe Gagnon, two prominent economist at the very pro-trade Peterson Institute for Economics have developed guidelines for defining currency manipulation that negotiators should be able to learn from if they are confused on the topic. As a practical matter, defining currency manipulation is almost certainly much simpler than many other topics covered in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), like defining "bio-similar" drugs so that patent protections can be extended to them or defining the types of regulatory takings that could be actionable under the investor-state dispute resolution tribunals established by the pact. (For example, can a company claim damages for a higher minimum wage?)

There are several other errors in the article. At one point it tells readers:

The NYT seems to be backsliding again in its commitment to put numbers in context. A NYT article on the prospects of tax reform threw around many big numbers which would almost certainly be meaningless to nearly all of its readers.

I will pick on one here, because it doesn't seem to make any sense. According to the article, President Obama's proposal to end the tax deductions for money placed in 529 accounts in future years would have saved the government $1 billion over the next decade. (These accounts allow people to deposit after-tax dollars and have the money accumulate tax free, if used for educational purposes.) I have seen this figure cited elsewhere, but it is surprisingly small.

According to a recent GAO report, there were 11 million accounts in 2011 with a total balance of $167 billion. The report estimates that the lost revenue due to the accounts was $1.6 billion in 2011. If we adjust upward for 2015 based on the nominal growth over the economy, the implied lost revenue for the current year would be just under $2.0 billion. This would almost certainly be an understatement, since the sharp rise in the stock market would mean that the holdings in 529 accounts would have grown far more rapidly than the economy over the last four years. Furthermore, since the top tax rate has been raised, the implicit tax savings from these accounts would be higher for the same amount of holdings in 2015 than in 2011.

If the one-year cost of the program is $2 billion, then how can ending future deductions only save $1 billion over ten years? President Obama proposal did protect the tax sheltered status of current deposits, but unlike retirement accounts, there is a limited period of time over which people can accumulate money in 529 accounts, basically from when a child is born until they complete their college education. This means that by the end of the ten-year budget horizon, most of the 529 money with grandfathered tax exempt status would already have been spent.

If the counter-factual assumes that 529 withdrawals grow in step with projected economic growth over the next decade, then they would be costing the Treasury over $3 billion in lost taxes in 2025. If 70 percent of this represents money contributed in 2016 and later, then the implicit savings in 2025 alone from President Obama's proposal would be more than $2.1 billion. If this calculation is anywhere close to accurate, how can the 10-year savings be just $1 billion?

Another way to think about this is the cost per account. If the number of accounts does not rise from the 11 million in 2011, then the implicit tax cost per account holder over 10 years is $91 or $9.10 per year. Is this plausible? Did hundreds of thousands of middle class families really get outraged over a proposal that would have cost them 18 cents a week in higher taxes?

Something in this picture is not adding up. The $1 billion figure over 10 years (0.002 percent of projected spending) doesn't make sense. If the paper had been tried to put this number in a context that made it meaningful to readers it might have gotten the number right.

As regular readers know, the Washington Post editorial board has problems with economics. They were foremost among the Very Serious People who warned about financial crises and soaring interest rates if we didn't tame the deficit. They still regularly issue demands for what they consider fiscally responsible policies (e.g. cutting Social Security and Medicare).

Anyhow, today they used their lead editorial to wag their finger at supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for not acknowledging that it would lead many employers to cut workers' hours. The issue is a provision in the law (which has yet to be applied) that would require large employers to provide insurance for workers who work more than 30 hours per week or to face a fine.

The editorial noted a directive from Staples to its store managers to restrict part-time workers to less than 25 hours as evidence of this ACA effect. The piece then cited work by Ben Casselmen to support its "Iron Law No 1: Incentives influence behavior":

"In 2009, 9.7 percent of part-timers worked between 25 hours and 29 hours and 7.7 percent worked between 31 and 34 hours. In about mid-2013, just before the employer mandate’s original implementation date, the gap between those numbers began to widen, hitting 11.1 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively, by year’s end."

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It speaks to the state of economic debate in the United States that we have prominent voices arguing both that we face a future in which productivity growth will be near zero (Robert Gordon)  and that productivity is about to soar through the roof so that most of us will not have any work to do (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee). If we envisioned the same debate in climate science, a substantial group of climatologists would be warning of an impending ice age even as others raise concerns about global warming. Needless to say, this sort of split would encourage most people to disregard the pronouncements of climatologists about anything, which is perhaps what the public should do in the case of economists.

When confronted with two sharply divided views about the world, the NYT doesn't help matters by adding a large dose of confusion, as it did in printing a column by Daniel Cohen, a French economist. Cohen's ostensible contribution is to tell us:

"both sides in this debate are right: We’re living an industrial revolution without economic growth. Powerful software is doing the work of humans, but the humans thus replaced are unable to find productive jobs." He then goes on to say that we will have to adjust to a world without growth because living standards will not be rising.

Apparently Cohen does not realize that he has taken Brynjolfsson and McAfee's side in this debate. The problem he has described is one of too much productivity growth. Workers find themselves without jobs because there is not enough demand for goods and services.

To see this point, imagine in the world Cohen describes that we ran the printing presses overtime and handed out $1 million in cash to every man, women, and child in the country. (Yep, we'll give a $1 million to deadbeat welfare cheats, hardworking middle income people, and even Bill Gates.) Now all you right-thinking people out there will want to scream that this will lead to massive inflation. After all, we're just printing money.

But the problem that we supposedly see is that the robots are doing all the work and there is no demand for most of our labor. If we there is more demand for goods and services now that we have been given our handouts, then we will ask the robots to work harder and a few of the formerly unemployed will get jobs doing robot maintenance or other such tasks. What in this story would cause prices to rise? Would the robots demand a pay hike?

If Brynjolfsson and McAfee are right, and we are not seeing growth, it's because boneheaded policymakers (I didn't say the European Union) are pointlessly restraining demand. In this context it is foolish to talk about "when the growth model fails." What we should be talking about is teaching economics 101 to the people determining economic policy.

Since no one asked, I think Brynjolfsson and McAfee are probably closer to the mark than Robert Gordon in that I see no reason to believe that our ability to achieve large gains in productivity is hitting any sort of limit. Nonetheless, I also don't expect a quantum leap in productivity growth. If we could get anywhere near the 3.0 percent annual productivity growth of the golden age (1947-1973) I would be very impressed.

 

 

 

David Brooks cast his column today as a battle between the economic agendas put forward by Larry Summers in a recent report for the Center for American Progress and Marco Rubio in his campaign book, American Dreams. After a brief summary of key points Brooks asks,

"The questions for Summers are: Have we forgotten the lessons of the last quarter-century? Do we think government is smart enough to intrude into millions of business decisions? Do we worry that in making hiring more expensive we will get less of it, and wind up with European-style sclerosis and unemployment levels?"

What lessons of the last quarter century does Brooks have in mind? The major economy with the best record on employment at this point is Germany, with an employment to population ratio (EPOP) that is almost 4 full percentage points higher than in the United States. Its unemployment rate is currently 4.9 percent. There are few countries in which the government intervenes more in the corporate governance process than Germany.

In fact, even France has a higher EPOP among prime age workers (ages 25-54) than the United States. The United States has a slightly higher overall EPOP because we expect students to work and we expect people to retire later. In terms of employers being willing to hire prime age workers, France does better than the United States.

The problem is not that Summers has forgotten the lessons of the last quarter century, the problem is that Brooks is inventing lessons that fit the policies he wants to promote rather than the data.

That's not my line, it's the headline of an AP article in the Washington Post. The exact words were, "cheaper gas lowers retail sales; spending up elsewhere." Yes folks, once again we see the march of surprised economists.

The immediate cause was a report from the Commerce Department showing a drop in retail sales of 0.8 percent in January that followed a drop of 0.9 percent in December. These declines do not quite fit with the story of a soaring economy led by a consumption boom. So now in the hunt for culprits, this AP article has apparently fingered lower gas prices.

Back in the good old days before this report was released we used to think that lower gas prices would be a spur to consumption as it freed up money for other purchases, but I guess we have an audible here:

"The modest gain suggests Americans are still cautious about spending their windfall from lower gas prices. ...

"Economists were disappointed by the weak showing, but most expect that consumers will eventually spend much of the extra cash left over from lower prices at the pump.

"'With lower gasoline prices leaving households with more to spend ... the labor market on fire and consumer confidence back at its pre-recession level, we had hoped to see a much stronger performance,' Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients."

There are two important data points that were apparently missed by the surprised economists. First, the labor market is very far from being "on fire." The percentage of unemployment due to people voluntarily quitting their jobs is still at extraordinarily levels. This is a key measure of workers confidence in the state of the labor market. Nominal wage growth has been just 2.2 percent over the last year, virtually unchanged from the prior three years.

The other data point apparently unavailable to surprised economists is the saving rate. Contrary to what they routinely assert, the saving rate is actually quite low, meaning that consumption as a share of disposable income is already quite high. People have need to save, for example for things like retirement. Some folks may have heard stories about the retirement income crisis. This refers to the fact that workers approaching retirement no longer have defined benefit pensions and have little savings.

For this reason, we should not expect some big surge in consumption going forward. If we expect to see a sharp uptick in growth we will have to look to some other component. Since there ain't many choices out there (the textbook says GDP is equal to consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports), some of us are less optimistic than the surprised economists.

Wow, this stuff just keeps getting worse. Apparently anything goes when the big corporations want a trade deal. Otherwise serious people will just make stuff up, because hey, the big campaign contributors want a trade deal to make themselves richer. The latest effort in creative myth-making comes from Third Way, which tells us that post-NAFTA trade deals aren't job losers like NAFTA.

As Jim Tankersley and Lydia DePillis point out, this implicitly tells us that all those pro-NAFTA types weren't right in telling us that NAFTA would create jobs. (Hey, when did these folks stop telling us things about trade that were not true?)

But getting to the meat of the matter, the line from Third Way is that our trade negotiators have learned from past mistakes. Now, trade agreements include labor and environmental standards and other provisions that ensure they will be job gainers. They show this by comparing U.S. trade deficits in goods with the countries with whom we have signed trade pacts in this century, in the years since the pact with the decade prior to the pact. In their analysis they find that in 13 of the 17 countries the trade deficit was smaller in the years since the pact than in the decade before the pact.

Before anyone becomes convinced that we can now count on new trade deals to reduce our trade deficit, let's pretend that we approached this like serious people. We would want to control for overall trends in the deficit and region-specific trends (e.g. compare the pattern in Chile after the signing of the pact with the pattern with other Latin American countries).

I don't have time to do a full analysis (no one pays us for correcting this dreck), but a very quick look shows how the deck is stacked in favor of getting the Third Way result. Most of the trade deals were signed right as the United States was reaching its peak deficit (2006) or in the years just after.

To see how this stacks the deck, the table below shows average trade deficit (in constant dollars) in the decade prior to the year of the pact and for the years since: [The data is available from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.6; modify the table to to show additional years]

           Prior decade             Years since pact

2006   $530.5 billion             $488.7 billion

2007   $587.3 billion             $456.7 billion

2008   $616.5 billion             $439.5 billion

2009   $618.3 billion             $448.8 billion

2010   $616.4 billion             $446.3 billion

2011   $612.2 billion             $441.9 billion

2012   $599.0 billion             $436.6 billion

2013   $576.8 billion             $452.6 billion

 

In short, this methodology would lead you to find smaller trade deficits in the years following an agreement even if the U.S. trade balance with these countries worsened compared to other countries. This ain't serious stuff, but like they say, when pushing trade deals, truth doesn't matter.         

The NYT reported on a decision by the Obama administration to file a complaint before the World Trade Organization over alleged subsidies by China to its exports. The subsidies take the form of government support for product design, information technology, and worker training for exported items. According to the article, the value of these subsidies came to roughly $1 billion over the last three years.

It would have been helpful to put this complaint in some context for readers. China has an explicit policy of holding its currency to a level that is far below its market value. If we assume that the market value of the yuan would be 20 percent higher than the current value, the export subsidy implied by keeping the yuan below its market level would be on the order of $260 billion over the last three years. Even if the gap between the market value and China's targeted rate is just 10 percent, the implied subsidy would be over $130 billion over this period.

As the piece notes, the administration's move was intended primarily as a gesture to win support from Congress for fast-track authority to allow the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact. The effectiveness of this gesture would be substantially reduced if the NYT had pointed out that the Obama administration continues to do nothing with reference to an export subsidy that is more than 100 times as large.

I see Robert Waldmann has taken up the old challenge from the Social Security privatization days of whether it was possible to get a 7.0 percent real return when price to earnings ratios in the stock market were over 20 to 1 (2005 days) or 30 to 1 (late 1990s privatization craze). He claims to have done the trick by assuming that stock prices grow at a 3.0 percent real rate (the same as the growth rate for the economy), stocks pay out 1.9 percent in dividends, and effectively pay out 3.3 percent of their value to shareholders in the form of share buybacks.

I'll make two quick points on this one. First, the assumption of 3.0 percent real GDP growth is far above what the Social Security trustees were assuming at the time (@ 1.5-1.8 percent). It is also above most current projections which tend to be near 2.0 percent for long-run growth. Waldmann's projection may well prove right, but the point is that he is using a different growth projection than is being used in other contexts (like projecting the size of the Social Security shortfall).

The other problem is that he has companies paying out an amount equal to 5.2 percent of their stock price either as dividends or share buybacks. If the price to earnings ratio is over 20 (it is), then he has them paying out more than 100 percent of their profits to shareholders. That doesn't seem like a sustainable policy in the long-run, but I am prepared to be shown otherwise.

 

Note: corrections made -- thanks folks.

Erskine Bowles, the superhero of the fiscal austerity crowd, took time off from his duties on corporate boards to once again argue the need to "put our fiscal house in order." He apparently hasn't been following the numbers lately. If he had, he would have noticed that growth rate of Medicare and other government health care programs is now on a path that is lower than the proposals that he and Alan Simpson put forward in their report. (He refers to their report as a report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. This is not true. According to its bylaws a report would have needed the support of 14 of the 18 members of the commission. The Bowles-Simpson proposal only had support of 10 members of the commission.)

Bowles also inaccurately claims they proposed delaying deficit reduction until after the economy had recovered. In fact, the report proposed deficit reduction of $330 billion (2.0 percent of GDP) beginning in the fall of 2011. This was long before the economy had recovered or would have in any scenario without a large dose of fiscal stimulus.

Bowles also fails to give any reason whatsoever why the country would benefit from dealing with large projected deficits a decade into the future. These projections may themselves be far off the mark, as has frequently been the case in the past. It is also worth noting that the rise in the deficit depends on projections of sharply higher interest rates in the years after 2020. There is no obvious basis for assuming this would be the case.

In the event that large deficits do prove to be a problem in 2025 and beyond there is no obvious reason why we would think that the Congress and president would not be able to deal with them at the time. That is what experience would suggest. In the mean time, we have real problems like millions of people unable to find jobs and tens of millions who have not shared in the benefits of growth for the last fifteen years. Or, to put it in generational terms, we have tens of millions of children growing up in families whose parents don't earn enough to provide them with a comfortable upbringing.

Yes, it's Monday morning at the Washington Post and Robert Samuelson wants to raise the retirement age and cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. How else would one begin the week?

He apparently thinks he is being clever by claiming that because the government is meeting these obligations to its seniors, it is failing elsewhere. Somehow, it doesn't occur to Samuelson that if we want to get extra money for other areas of government spending we could

1) raise taxes,

2) cut government payments for doctors, drug companies, and medical equipment suppliers in Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs;

3) shoot for lower unemployment rates by not having the Fed choke off the recovery with higher interest rates;

4) default on the national debt.

 

The first point is straightforward. We have raised taxes many times in the past. If this were 1970 and we projected forward budgets for a decade with no increases in Medicare or Social Security taxes, the budget would have shown very large deficits. The same would have been true in 1980. This is what we are doing now. This is not to say that a tax increase would be politically easy, but cutting Social Security and Medicare are not exactly politically easy either. Apparently Samuelson is prepared to go after seniors, but not wealthy people who presumably would disproportionately bear the brunt of any tax increase.

The second point is straightforward also. We pay close to twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries. This is not because we get better health care, but because our drug companies, medical equipment suppliers, and physicians get twice as much money as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. We could take steps to bring our costs into line, such as medical trade, but again Samuelson would rather hit seniors than these high income folks.

The third point is hugely important and under-appreciated. We got budget surpluses at the end of the 1990s not because of budget cuts and increased taxes; we got budget surpluses because the Fed allowed the economy to grow more and the unemployment rate to fall far lower than was thought possible by most economists.

Robert Schiller had an interesting piece in the NYT on how uncertainty about the economy may be leading to extraordinary low long interest rates. However, he adds in the strange comment that savings is not low, in spite of the very low return available to savers:

"Yet according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal saving as a fraction of disposable personal income stood at 4.9 percent for the United States in December. That may not be an impressive level, but it’s not particularly low by historical standards."

This comment is strange, because in fact a 4.9 percent saving rate is in fact quite low by historical standards.

saving

The only periods in which the saving rate was lower than it is today were when the wealth effects from the stock and housing bubble led to consumption booms at the end of the 1990s and the middle of the last decade. The current saving rate is far below the average for the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

It is worth noting that the actual saving rate out of income may be even lower than the data indicate. There is currently a large negative statistical discrepancy in the GDP accounts (@ 0.8 percent of GDP), which means that measured income is larger than measured expenditures. My explanation for this unusual gap is that capital gains income is showing up as normal income, leading to an overstatement of true income. (Capital gains are not supposed to count as part of income for GDP accounting purposes.) if this is true, then actual saving rate could be as much as a percentage point lower than the reported rate.

Okay, we'll try it with pictures this time. I have been trying to explain that the monthly wage data are erratic. If we accept the numbers at face value then we would have to believe that workers go from getting healthy pay gains one month to pay cuts the next. To me that seems pretty implausible, but apparently many reporters and some economists think this is the way the economy works.

So today we do it with pictures. The folks who believe that the monthly wage data released by the Labor Department are giving us real insight into the movement in wages think that monthly wage changes look like this.

 

Percent Change in Average Hourly Wage

average hourly wage

Source; Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That doesn't look like the economy I see, but hey, what do I know?

The celebrations over the economy's strong performance are really getting out of hand. That makes it incumbent on those of us who have access to government data and know arithmetic to work harder to set the record straight.

The basic point is a simple one. The economy is recovering, and at least recently, at a relatively rapid pace. I say "relatively" because if we saw the same job growth rates as we did after steep recessions in prior decades we would be seeing 500,000 to 600,000 jobs a month, but hey 257,000 is better than we had been seeing until 2014.

So this is good news. The problem is that the Wall Street boys (e.g. Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, etc.) created a really really deep hole. So things are getting better, but we have a very long way to go to get back to anything we can consider a normal labor market and economy.

There are many different measures that can be cited to make this point. The employment to population ratio for prime age workers (between the ages 25-54) is almost three full percentage points below its pre-recession level. (This gets around the claim that the problem is baby boomers retiring. These people are not leaving the labor force to retire.) The number of people who report working part-time involuntarily is still close to 2 million (@50 percent) above pre-recession levels.

But my favorite measure is the quit rate, the percentage of unemployment due to people who voluntarily quit their jobs. This is very useful because it is a real measure of people voting with their feet. The quit rate is telling us the extent to which workers have enough confidence in their job prospects to tell their asshole boss to get lost and then walk out the door.

In a good labor market people are willing to do this. In a bad labor market the risk is just too great. Workers are worried that it may be months, or longer, before they get a new job. So what do the data say?

Well, the quit rate is up a great deal from the troughs of the Great Recession. It had been as low as 5.6 percent in the middle of 2009 just after the economy had shed almost 8 million jobs. In the January data it was up to 9.5 percent. But this only looks good by comparison. The quit rate had been hovering just under 12.0 percent in the two years prior to the recession.

And for those old enough to remember, that was not exactly a great job market. Wages were at best inching ahead of inflation. if we go back to the late 1990s, which really was a good job market, the quit rate was over 13.0 percent and even got as high as 15.2 percent in April of 2000 Here's the picture.

                        Voluntary Job Leavers as a Percent of the Unemployed

quits

                                          Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So the moral of this story is that yes, things are definitely getting better, but no things are not good. And we know this, not because some overpaid economist or pundit says so, but because workers are voting with their feet.

So it's your call. You can believe the expert (who couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble) on your favorite news outlet, or you can believe the people who actually have their jobs on the line.

Allan Sloan is a reasonable conservative, which means that he usually makes reasonable arguments, even if some of us to his left may disagree with them. Today's piece criticizing President Obama's proposal to cap the amount in a tax sheltered IRA at $3.4 million isn't up to the usual standards.

The gist of Sloan's argument is that $3.4 million would not be enough to generate the same retirement income in annuity as President Obama will get in his pension when he retirees. By Sloan's calculation, the $3.4 million will allow a couple to get a dual-life annuity of roughly $100,000 a year, half the size of President Obama's pension of $200,000 a year. He considers this unfair.

I'm a bit at a loss at seeing the unfairness. President Obama gets paid $400,000 a year. This puts him well into the top 1 percent of wage earners. Is that unfair? Of course his paycheck is less than one-twentieth the average for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, many of whom probably lack the skills needed to operate a lemonade stand.

It's not clear exactly what sort of yardstick President Obama's is supposed to provide. He is obviously at the top of his field, so is it surprising that he would get paid relatively well and also enjoy a comfortable retirement?

Just to be clear, no one is preventing people from accumulating more than $3.4 million to support their retirement. They just won't enjoy a taxpayers' subsidy for the amount in excess of $3.4 million. To those of us who will never have anything close to $3.4 million in a retirement account, the unfairness works in the opposite direction.

If most of us want to have an income of $100,000 plus in our late sixties and seventies then we will have to get the bulk of it by working. This means we will be paying income taxes of 15 to 25 percent, in addition to a payroll tax of 15.35 percent. The person who has accumulated $3.4 million tax free in a Roth IRA and then able to get $100,000 a year in tax free income in an annuity looks like they are doing pretty well. President Obama and his wife may be doing better, but it's hard to have too much sympathy.  

There has been concern expressed in some circles about the growing ratio of debt to GDP in countries around the world. Neil Irwin has a piece on this issue in today's Upshot section of the NYT.

Such concerns are seriously misplaced for a simple reason: the market value of debt is inversely related to the interest rate. The point here is a simple one. Imagine an infinitely lived bond that pays $50 a year in interest. If the prevailing interest in the market for long-term debt is 5 percent, the price of this this bond will be $1,000. However if the interest rate were to rise to 10 percent, the price of the bond would be just $500.

At present, interest rates worldwide are very low by historical standards. This has created a situation in which the market value of debt is very high. However if interest rates were to rise, then the market value of this debt would plummet.

Consider the case of Japan, which can now issue 10-year bonds paying just 0.3 percent interest. If the interest rate on 10-year debt rose to 3.0 percent (still a very low level) the market value of this debt would fall by close to one-third (the exact decline would depend on the timing of the increase). The decline in the market value of longer term debt would be even greater.

The same story applies to private debt. if interest rates were to rise and companies were troubled by the amount of debt they had outstanding they could just issue new bonds and buy up the existing debt at large discounts, thereby reducing their debt burden.

If we want to take a serious look at the extent to which debt is imposing a constraint on economies around the world we should look at the ratio of interest to GDP. That doesn't look very frightening in the U.S. and I suspect there is a similar story in most other countries around the world.

 

Addendum:

I should also point out that high debt burdens are actually in part a direct outcome of low interest rates. Low interest rates mean it's cheap to borrow, therefore governments, businesses, and households will borrow more. That is actually what we should want to see in a downturn, it means more demand in the economy.

Ideally, governments would take advantage of low interest rates to invest in infrastructure, research and development, and education. Businesses are taking advantage of low interest rates in part to invest and in part to buy other companies. It's cheap, why shouldn't they borrow to buy up shares? Households aren't borrowing against home equity like they did in the bubble years, but undoubtedly many are taking advantage of low interest rates to pay their kids' education or other spending.

Anyhow, we can look to arithmetic and logic to see the impact and cause of higher debt to GDP ratios. Alternatively, we can ignore arithmetic and logic and yell about the debt and the sky falling. It's your choice.

Economists and economic reporters are fortunate they don't work in an occupation like dishwashing or truck driving where job security and promotion depend on performance. If they did, most of the folks currently employed would be on the street after missing little things like an $8 trillion housing bubble.

But no reason to recount old history. Remember all those stories of the booming U.S. economy? Well, they are likely to be just memories. The December trade data was released today. It showed a monthly deficit of $46.6 billion, up from an originally reported $39.0 billion in November (revised up to $38.8 billion in this report).

This will likely push the revised 4th quarter GDP growth to below 2.0 percent. Weak durable good shipments for December reported yesterday will also lower 4th quarter GDP. In short, it don't look like much of a boom.

For fans of national income accounting (i.e. people who live in the real world), the rise in the trade deficit is very troubling. This is the core cause of secular stagnation. This is U.S. generated demand that is creating demand elsewhere. There is no easy mechanism to replace it. We could have larger budget deficits, but that goes against the fashions in Washington policy circles. That means, in the absence of another bubble, we can look to an underemployed economy persisting for some time.

That is the logical conclusion that would be drawn from an article headlined that "U.S. home price gains weakened in December on slower sales."

The piece begins:

"U.S. home values rose at a modest pace in December, a sign there are too few potential buyers to bid up prices.

"Real estate data provider CoreLogic says home prices rose 5 percent in December from 12 months earlier. That is down from the 5.5 percent price gain recorded in November. It’s much lower than the double-digit gains that occurred last year."

Actually, since U.S. house prices are already above their trend level, this is a sign that the market is stabilizing, as one might expect following a sharp tumble and a rapid upswing in prices. Over the long-term house prices have risen roughly in step with the overall rate of inflation. Since inflation was around 1.0 percent in 2014, house prices are still rising considerably more rapidly that would be expected based on their long-term trend. This is the opposite of the story conveyed in this article. 

The NYT led readers to believe that meeting Greece's demand for changing the terms of its debt is far more difficult than is actually the case. It told readers:

"Writing down government debts, or stretching out when they need to repaid, causes losses for the institutions and individuals that hold the securities. Banks hold billions of euros in government bonds and, to make sure the banks remain stable, money would need to be found to replenish the big losses that the banks would suffer. Richer countries would have to agree to provide such funds. Taxpayers there may object, adding support to political parties that oppose much of what the European Union stands for and wants to achieve."

In fact, well over 80 percent of Greece's debt is held by the I.M.F., European Central Bank, and other official institutions. Concessions made by these entities could hugely reduce Greece's debt burden while leaving private debt holders unaffected. These concessions need not cost taxpayers a euro, since the European Central Bank knows how to print euros, which it can and is doing.

If taxpayers are upset it is because they have not learned basic economics which speaks to the quality of the European educational system, not Greece's debts. It is also worth pointing out that in lending Greece money, the official institutions effectively bailed out incompetent bankers who made bad loans to Greece.


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