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A Stronger Dollar Means a Larger Trade Deficit and More "Secular Stagnation" Print
Sunday, 25 January 2015 09:16

The Washington Post had a major business section piece on the "winners and losers of a stronger dollar" which never explicitly discussed its impact on the trade deficit. This is truly remarkable since the $500 billion plus annual trade deficit (@3 percent of GDP) is the main cause of the economy's weakness and continued high unemployment.

The logic of this is straightforward. The deficit is money that is income that is generated in the United States but is creating demand overseas. It has the same impact on the U.S. economy as if consumers decided to stuff $500 billion every year under their mattresses instead of spending it.

This is the main cause of the "secular stagnation" that has been widely discussed, even in the pages of the Washington Post. There is no easy mechanism for replacing this $500 billion in lost annual demand. We could do it with larger budget deficits, but deficit hawks like the folks at the Post, get hysterical at such suggestions. 

In the last decade we replaced the demand lost from the trade deficit with the demand from a housing bubble, which generated record levels of construction spending (measured as a share of GDP) and an unprecedented consumption boom. In the late 1990s we filled the hole with the demand created by a stock bubble, which spurred investment and a slightly smaller consumption boom. However without another bubble, there is no plausible mechanism for filling this hole in demand.

The rising dollar will make things worse since the value of the dollar is the main determinant of the trade deficit. A rise in the dollar will make U.S. goods and services more expensive to foreigners, meaning they will buy less of our exports. It makes foreign goods and services cheaper for people living in the United States, causing us to buy more imports. The net effect will be a larger trade deficit and a loss of jobs.

The piece also makes a common mistake by implying that it matters that oil is generally priced in dollars:

"Oil prices are falling everywhere, but because the commodity is priced in dollars, American drivers are seeing a bigger discount than drivers in other countries."

Actually, the story would be exactly the same if oil were priced in euros or yen and we saw a similar run-up in the dollar against the value of other currencies. The fact that the price of oil is generally quoted in dollars is of no consequence.

Did the Keynesians Get It Wrong in Predicting a Recession in 2013? Print
Saturday, 24 January 2015 11:46

I have had several readers send me a blogpost from Scott Sumner saying that the Keynesians have been dishonest in not owning up to the fact that they were wrong in predicting a recession in 2013. The argument is that supposedly us Keynesian types all said that the budget cuts and the ending of the payroll tax cut at the start of 2013 would throw the economy back into recession. (Jeffrey Sachs has made similar claims.)

That isn't my memory of what I said at the time, but hey we can check these things. I looked at a few of my columns from the fall of 2012 and they mostly ran in the opposite direction. The Washington insider types were hyping the threat of the "fiscal cliff" in the hope of pressuring President Obama and the Democrats to make big concessions on Social Security and Medicare. They were saying that even the risk of falling off the cliff could have a big impact on growth in the third and fourth quarter of 2012.

My columns and blogposts (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here) were largely devoted to saying this was crap. I certainly agreed that budget cutbacks and the end of the payroll tax cuts would dampen growth, but the number was between 0.5-0.8 percentage points. This left us far from recession. (All my columns and blogposts from this time are at the CEPR website, so folks can verify that I didn't do any cherry picking here.)

I know Paul Krugman is the real target here, not me, but we've been seeing the economy pretty much the same way since the beginning of the recession. If he had a different story at the time I think I would remember it. But his columns and blogposts are archived too. I really don't think anyone will find him predicting a recession in 2013, although I'm sure he also said that budget cuts and tax increases would dampen growth. 

Anyhow, I'm generally happy to stand behind the things I've said, and when they are proven wrong I hope I own up to it. But I don't see any apologies in order. No recession happened in 2013 and none was predicted here.



I see that Alex Tabarrok has found a quote from me from May of 2013 in which argued that the economy would not grow fast enough to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate in the near future:

"It is absurd to think that the economy has enough momentum to make any substantial dent in unemployment in the foreseeable future."

Since that time, the unemployment rate has fallen by roughly 2.0 percentage points. That would certainly qualify as a "substantial dent." Interestingly, growth over this period averaged just 2.8 percent. With potential growth generally put between 2.2-2.4 percent (potential growth is the rate needed to keep pace with the growth of the labor force) this difference of between 0.4-0.6 percentage points would ordinarily not be enough to make a substantial dent in the unemployment rate. In fact, if we look at the employment to population ratio (EPOP), the percentage of the population with jobs, it rose by just 0.6 percentage points over this period. At that rate, it would take approximately a decade to get back to the pre-recession EPOPs.

What I had not anticipated is the large number of people who would give up looking for work and drop out of the labor force over the next year and a half. The labor force participation rate fell from 63.4 percent in April of 2013 (the most recent data available when I wrote the column) to 62.7 percent in December of 2014. This drop corresponds to roughly 1.7 million people leaving the labor force. In past recoveries the labor force participation rate rose as more people got jobs.

Anyhow, I will own up to having gotten this one badly wrong. I did not expect people to be leaving the labor force as the economy recovered. I expected that participation rates would follow past trends. I still expect that this will be the case going forward, so I do think both the EPOP and the labor force participation will rise in the next couple of years, assuming that the economy continues on its modest growth path.

Joe Nocera on Politicians and Trade Print
Saturday, 24 January 2015 08:52

Joe Nocera used his NYT column this morning to beat up on a number of politicians who oppose President Obama's call for fast-track authority to facilitate passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP). He claims that they have the trade story badly wrong and that recent trade deals have actually been a big help to the country.

While Nocera may be correct in saying that many politicians have exaggerated the negative impact on NAFTA and other recent trade deals (stop the presses! politicians exaggerating!), but their basic story is correct. There are three points that people should understand in assessing the impact of trade and the meaning of these trade deals:

1) Trade has been an important factor increasing inequality in the United States;

2) The trade deficit is the major reason that the economy has weak demand and remains far below full employment;

3) The TPP and TTIP are about imposing a corporate friendly regulation structure, not trade.

Taking these in turn, the fact that trade has been a major factor contributing to inequality is no longer just a claim from the fringe lefty types. Paul Krugman has written about as has M.I.T. economist David Autor. It was even highlighted in the report of the commission on inclusive prosperity set up by the Center for American Progress and co-chaired by Larry Summers.

The basic point is a simple one. We constructed trade agreements designed to put our steelworkers and textile workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. The predicted and actual effect of this policy is to lower the wages of steelworkers and textile workers.

If anyone finds this difficult to understand, imagine that the trade deals of the last quarter century were focused on making it as easy as possible for smart kids in India, China, and other developing countries to train to U.S. standards and then work as doctors, lawyers, dentists and in other highly paid professions in the United States. What would we expect to happen to the wages of doctors, lawyers, dentists and other highly paid professionals? They would fall, bingo!

The story on the trade deficit should be equally straightforward. Our annual trade deficit of $500 billion (@ 3.0 percent of GDP) is a direct drain on domestic demand. This represents money being spent by workers and companies in the United States that is creating demand in other countries, not in the United States. In the good old days, mainstream economists ridiculed the idea that a trade deficit could lead to a shortfall in demand because they assumed as an article of faith that any demand lost due to a trade deficit would be made by increased demand from other sources.



Ubernomics Print
Friday, 23 January 2015 11:18

In trying to push its case with the public, Uber decided to share its internal data with Alan Krueger, a prominent Princeton economist and former head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. (Could this be part of Uber's dividend from hiring former Obama political adviser David Plouffe?) Anyhow, Kreuger finds that Uber drivers on average earn a gross premium of $6.00 an hour over the pay of drivers of traditional cabs. (He also had some rather unsurprising findings, for example that more people are now working for Uber after it expanded the number of cities in which it operates.)

The key issue here is the use of the gross premium rather than a direct earnings comparison. The difficulty, as the paper notes, is that we don't know the costs incurred by Uber drivers, who use their own car. (There is a good write-up of the study by Emily Badger in Wonkblog.) Depending on how much Uber drivers drive, they could still end up with less money than their counterparts in traditional cabs.

A useful piece of information is the cost of driving a car, which Badger's colleague, Andrea Peterson tells us is 57 cents per mile, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Well, this one seems pretty straightforward, if Uber drivers average more than 11 miles per hour, they are less well-paid than their counterparts working for traditional cab companies.

Krueger's study doesn't have data on miles traveled (this is strange, since Uber has this data, at least for the time that a paying passenger is in the car), but it does tell us that the median number of trips per hour is 1.3. We really would want the average here, since we are looking at an average wage pay difference. But if we take the 1.3 median number of trips per hour given in the study, then the average trip distance would have to be 8 miles or less for Uber drivers to come out ahead, assuming they did no unpaid miles.

This second assumption is of course obviously wrong. If an Uber driver take a rider 30 miles from downturn to a suburb, there is a good chance that they will be driving back with an empty car. Also, Uber drivers often cruise high density areas to try to be in line for a call. (This is my casual empiricism from asking the few Uber drivers I have been in contact with.) Anyhow, clearly total miles driven will exceed paid miles driven, which means that the average length of a ride would have to be considerably less than 8 miles for Uber drivers to come out ahead of drivers for traditional cabs.

There is one other item in this mix worth noting. The I.R.S figure of 57 cents a mile is a figure for a commercial driver. It assumes that this person has paid for the necessary licenses and insurance. Most Uber drivers have not paid for commercial licenses for themselves and their vehicles. Most probably also don't carry insurance that covers them for commercial driving.



George Will Thinks the Mortgage Interest Deduction Is Destroying the American Character Print
Thursday, 22 January 2015 10:29

There may be some case here, but of course that is not what George Will is actually arguing. He is pulling numbers from outer space to tell a story of a run away welfare state. As he quotes that great welfare reformer of the past, Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it but what it costs those who receive it."

Okay, none of us like to see healthy people in their prime working years scamming the rest of us rather than working. But in spite of Will's best efforts at playing with numbers, he does not have much of a story. He tells readers:

"Transfers of benefits to individuals through social welfare programs have increased from less than 1 federal dollar in 4 (24 percent) in 1963 to almost 3 out of 5 (59 percent) in 2013. In that half-century, entitlement payments were, Eberstadt says, America’s “fastest growing source of personal income,” growing twice as fast as all other real per capita personal income. It is probable that this year a majority of Americans will seek and receive payments.

This is not primarily because of Social Security and Medicare transfers to an aging population. Rather, the growth is overwhelmingly in means-tested entitlements."

If we go to the Congressional Budget Office, we can quickly find data going back to 1973. This shows entitlement spending, which accounts for the vast majority of federal government transfers, went from 7.5 percent of GDP in 1973 to 12.3 percent in 2014. I'm not sure that this sort of growth will destroy the nation's fiber. (I realize that this excludes the 1963-73 period, but if that is the story, then the nation's fiber was destroyed more than 40 years ago.)

Furthermore, contrary to what Will tells us, most of the growth was in Social Security and Medicare payments to an aging population, which went from 4.2 percent of GDP in 1973 to 7.8 percent in 2014. This increase accounts for 3.6 percentage points of the 4.8 percentage points of growth in entitlement payments over this period. (Most of the rest can be accounted for by Medicaid, which increased by 1.2 percentage points as a share of GDP. This is a means-tested program, but more than half of expenditures go to low-income seniors.)



Betting Against Subprime Mortgages Was a Good Thing Print
Thursday, 22 January 2015 08:27

Paul Krugman joined in ridiculing billionaire Jeff Greene, a person who richly deserves to be ridiculed. (He wants people to get used to lower living standards.) However people are wrongly attacking Greene when they complain about his betting against subprime mortgage backed securities.

Subprime mortgage backed securities were the fuel for the housing bubble that entrapped tens of millions of people, laid the basis for the economic collapse, and ruined millions of lives. The securities were in fact bad. Greene betting against them made that clear in the markets somewhat sooner than would have otherwise been the case, bringing down the bubble earlier and more rapidly.

This is good. It meant that fewer people were caught up in it than if the bubble had continued to grow for another six months or year. It would have saved people an enormous amount of pain if there had been lots of Jeff Greenes betting against subprime mortgage backed securities in 2003-2004. They could have prevented the housing bubble from ever growing to such dangerous proportions. Certainly his actions were much more commendable in this one that the profiteers and enablers like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Timothy Geithner. 

Just to be clear, Greene was acting out of greed, not a desire to help the economy and society. But this is a case where greed was good. Of course he is still a wretched person, flying across the Atlantic in his private jet with two nannies to tell the rest of us that we will have to get used to a lower standard of living.  

Note: Name corrected -- thanks John Wright.

Denver Businessman Says That His Refusal to Raise Wages Shows the Structural Problems in the Economy Today Print
Thursday, 22 January 2015 08:16

By almost every measure there continues to be a great deal of slack in the labor market. Unemployment rates remain high even for college graduates and even college graduates with degrees in the STEM fields have since little increase in wages in recent years.

Given this backdrop, it is not clear what information the NYT thinks it is giving readers when it reports :

"His company [a cable start-up based in Denver] has created about 60 jobs in the past year, but Mr. Binder said that vacancies often showed the structural problems in the economy. His business sometimes struggles to find qualified candidates for technologically demanding positions, but it is deluged with 700 applicants when it needs to hire an accountant."

The normal way in which businesses attract qualified candidates is by offering higher pay. Clearly these candidates exist, they just might work for Mr. Binder's competitors. Insofar as Mr. Binder's difficulties in getting qualified candidates for technologically demanding positions is evidence of a structural problem, the problem is that we have people in top positions in businesses who apparently do not understand how the labor market works.

Robert Samuelson Gets It Right on the Fed and Interest Rates Print
Wednesday, 21 January 2015 13:51

Robert Samuelson used his column on Monday to debate the need for the Fed to clamp down on wage growth and came down on the right side: hurry up and wait. This is good to see, but there are a few more data points that make the case even more strongly.

First, the quit rate -- the share of unemployment due to people voluntarily quitting their jobs -- is still at levels that we would expect in a recession. This is important because it is a relatively direct measure of workers' confidence in their labor market prospects. If they are unhappy at their job, but they don't feel they have much opportunity to find a better one, they will be reluctant to quit unless they have a new job lined up.


Percentage of Unemployment Due to Job Leavers

quit rates

                                  Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The second noteworthy point is the high number of people who report working part-time involuntarily. We can debate the reasons that prime age workers might have dropped out of the labor force, but there is no plausible case that people who work part-time jobs and say they want full-time employment, don't actually want full-time employment. This number is still up by more than 2 million (@ 50 percent) from pre-recession levels, suggesting a large amount of labor market slack.

The last point is that we really don't have much basis for fear about getting this wrong by being too lax. According to research from the Congressional Budget Office, the terms of the trade-off between unemployment and inflation have flattened. This research indicates that even if the unemployment rate was a full percentage point below the NAIRU for a full year, the inflation rate would only rise by 0.3 percentage points.

The NAIRU or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, is supposed to be the lowest unemployment rate we can hit without having the inflation rate start to rise. We don't know exactly where it is, but most economists put it between 5.2 percent and 5.5 percent unemployment. (I think we can go far lower.) But the point is that if the "true" number is 5.5 percent, and we allowed the unemployment rate to fall to 4.5 percent for a full year, the inflation rate would only be 0.3 percentage points higher than at the end of the year than the beginning. In the current environment, that would mean going from a 1.6 percent core inflation rate to a 1.9 percent core inflation rate.

That doesn't sound like a really bad story. For this reason, it's hard to see why anyone should be talking about raising interest rates and deliberately slowing the economy right now.


Note: Link fixed.

Wages Did Not Rise in November and Fall in December: #23,754 Print
Wednesday, 21 January 2015 05:20

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.

Mind Reading from NPR Print
Wednesday, 21 January 2015 05:16

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."

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.