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Greece's Progress in Putting the Economy Back on Track? Print
Friday, 13 June 2014 04:48

Many people reading a NYT article on a series of Greek court decisions rejecting government austerity measures were probably surprised to see the comment that:

"According to analysts, the decisions could upend Mr. Samaras’s progress in putting the economy back on track."

It's not clear what progress these analysts have in mind. The Greek economy shrank at a 1.1 percent annual rate in the most recent quarter. While it is projected to show modest (0.6 percent) growth for the year as a whole, the most recent projections from the I.M.F. show the economy will still be 10 percent smaller than its pre-recession level in 2019, the last year covered. These projections don't show the unemployment rate falling below 20 percent until 2017. It is worth noting that I.M.F. projections for Greece have consistently proven to be overly optimistic.

 
How Does WSJ Know That Obama Administration Wants Eased Mortgage Standards In Order to Help Buyers As Opposed to Increase Industry Profits? Print
Friday, 13 June 2014 04:25

That's the question millions are asking after reading this article on the decision of the Securities  and Exchange Commission to go along with more lax standards. Under these standards issuers of mortgage backed securities (MBS) would not be required to keep any stake in a mortgage even if it has less than a 5 percent down-payment. This reversed efforts to ensure that issuers did not deliberately put questionable mortgages into MBS, which was a major problem in the run-up of the bubble. (The original standard required a 20 percent down-payment in order avoid keeping a stake.)

The piece told readers:

"The Obama administration has begun trying to relax some of the postcrisis efforts to tighten mortgage-lending standards over concerns that the housing sector, traditionally an engine of economic recovery, is struggling to shift into higher gear."

While the Obama administration may be concerned about the housing sector and the economic recovery it is also plausible that it is at least as concerned about the profits of the financial industry. Securitizing bad mortgages has been very profitable in the past and many investment banks would like to be able to do so again in the future. The Obama administration has close ties to investment banks with many top officials coming from the sector. It also was an important source of campaign contribution.

At one point the piece notes the opposition to the down-payment requirement:

"The original proposal three years ago sparked a backlash among housing-industry, affordable-housing and civil-rights groups, who banded together over shared concerns that a 20% down-payment requirement would end the dream of homeownership for many Americans."

It would have been worth pointing out that the 20 percent down-payment requirement was not a condition of getting a mortgage. People who put down less than 20 percent would have been required to have mortgage insurance to have their loan placed in a pool. This would raise the cost of the mortgage somewhat. The higher mortgage cost would reflect the much greater risk of default. (Mortgages with just 5 percent down default at roughly four times the rate as mortgages with at least 20 percent down.)

In the current interest rate environment, homebuyers paying this risk premium would still be able to get mortgages at far lower interest rates than they would have paid without a risk premium in prior decades. Given this fact, it is absurd to say that the stricter rule rejected by the SEC, with the support of the Obama administration, "would end the dream of homeownership for many Americans."

 
Are We Suffering from Too Many or Too Few Workers? Print
Thursday, 12 June 2014 04:37

Binyamin Appelbaum had an interesting piece in the NYT more or less summarizing views of economists on the economy's near and long-term problems. The piece reflected the incredible confusion among economists. This raises the obvious question, if economists really have no clue about the economy, why do we waste good money on them?

Anyhow, we find that we are suffering from too many workers (high unemployment) and likely to continue to experience high rates of unemployment for the indefinite future due to a lack of demand in the economy. A big part of the problem from this view is that with the inflation rate near zero, the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the inflation rate) can't fall low enough to bring the economy back to full employment since the nominal interest rate can't be negative (or at least not with conventional policy).

At the same time that the economy is suffering from too many workers we are supposed to also be troubled by the prospect of too few workers. Hence it is bad news that immigration has slowed, and for the longer term future, the birth rate has dropped. It's a bit hard to see this one. There could be an argument that shortages of workers with specific skills are holding up the recovery, but believers in markets know that shortages manifest themselves in rising prices, or in this case wages. There are no major areas of the economy (by occupation or location -- sorry North Dakota ain't major) with rapidly rising wages. So it's hard to see how getting more workers would provide a big boost to the economy. (More foreign doctors could drive their wages down to the averages for other wealthy countries, but I wouldn't consider this a big macro effect and I doubt these are the immigrants other economists are envisioning.)  

Remarkably, trade does not appear anywhere in this discussion. In the old days, econ textbooks told students that relatively wealthy countries, like the United States, are supposed to be exporters of capital to relatively poor countries, like China. This was part of the story of comparative advantage, capital is relatively plentiful in rich countries and relatively scarce in poor countries.

Exporting capital means running trade surpluses. In fact we have been running trade deficits, and in the years since the East Asian financial crisis in 1997 (which sent the value of the dollar soaring) we have been running very large deficits. In the most recent quarter's data our deficit was just over $500 billion, or 2.9 percent of GDP. This creates a gap in demand that we have to fill from either more consumption, investment, or government spending.(That's definitional -- if you don't like it, that's too bad, it is an inescapable truth.)

Read more...

 

 
The Continuing Attack on Disability Beneficiaries Print
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 04:23

The media have spent a great deal of time in the last few years highlighting the money paid out to people on Social Security disability. Associated Press was on the job again yesterday with an article that highlighted four administrative judges employed by the Social Security Administration who approve almost all the cases that are brought to them. There are many important facts that are left out of this piece.

First, these judges were deliberately selected by the House Oversight Committee because they were outliers who approve a high percentage of the cases brought to them. The Social Security Administration has almost 1400 administrative judges. Undoubtedly many are also outliers on the other side, denying most of the cases brought to them. A serious news story would have pointed out that these judges are atypical.

The piece was also misleading in telling readers:

"Lifetime benefits average about $300,000, according to the report, so Krafsur's [one of the four judges] cases will lead to nearly $1.8 billion in benefits."

The average disability benefit is roughly $1,150 a month. If the average period for collecting benefits is 15 years (almost certainly an overstatement, since most beneficiaries first become eligible in their 50s), this would imply benefits of $207,000. It is possible that the $300,000 includes Medicare payments. (Disability beneficiaries are eligible for Medicare after two years.)

If so, counting these benefits is seriously misleading for several reasons. First, Medicare is paid out of a separate fund so its does not affect the solvency of the Disability program. Also, most of these people would have low incomes and therefore be eligible for Medicaid, even if they were turned down for disability. This means there is little or no net cost to taxpayers from having them receive Medicare. Finally, most people would likely see this number and think beneficiaries are seeing $300,000 in cash.

It would have been worth pointing out that just over one-third of applicants for disability get approved. The people who appeal their initial denial to a disability judge likely exclude most of the marginal cases, (it takes time and generally lawyers' fees to file an appeal), so it would not be surprising that a high percentage will be approved. A recent study by the University of Michigan examined the work experience of marginal applicants who were denied disability by administrative judges. Of this group, which comprised 25 percent of all applicants, it found that only 28 percent of these people were employed two years after being turned down. Even among this group (7 percent of all applicants)average earnings was only half of what it had been before they had applied for disability. That suggests that the vast majority of this marginal group really are experiencing difficulty in working.

While the piece notes the sharp rise in the share of the workforce on disability it would have been useful to point out that the main reason is the aging of the baby boom cohort into the prime years for receiving disability and the increase in the age for receiving full Social Security benefits from 65 to 66. It would also have been worth noting that the United States ranks near the bottom of wealthy countries in the share of GDP going to disability benefits. Disability benefits comes to 0.9 percent of GDP in the United States, by comparison Germany pays out 1.7 percent of GDP ($290 billion a year in the U.S.) for disability benefits.

 

 

 
Loss of Good Paying Jobs Could Just Be Due to High Unemployment Policy Print
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 04:08

Thomas Edsall had a piece noting the deterioration of job quality since 2000 that many of us have been writing about in recent years. He discusses various possibilities going forward, but ignores an obvious one.

For most of the period since the 2001 recession the economy has been below full employment by almost anyone's definition. In such situations, it should not be surprising that there would be a deterioration in job quality as workers have to slide down the skills ladder in order to find employment. This is the sort of story that Jared Bernstein and I highlight in our book, Getting Back to Full Employment (free download available).

If Jared and I are correct then the problem is simply the government's high unemployment policy. This could be reversed by either larger government deficits (i.e. increased spending and/or tax cuts to people who will spend them), a lower trade deficit from a lower valued dollar, or a reduction in the length of the average work year through policies like work sharing. This would suggest that the deterioration of job quality is a problem that we know how to solve, even if there may not be the political will to do it.

 
Correcting Vox on Cramdown Print
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 08:14

Matt Yglesias has a piece in Vox explaining the politics of cramdown in which it tells readers that there was no way the Obama administration could have gotten cramdown through Congress. While Yglesias correctly points out that the Obama administration never really tried, he misrepresented the nature of the problem.

One of the great things about cramdown was that the proposal could have been sliced and diced in almost an infinite number of ways. While Yglesias is undoubtedly correct in saying that a wholesale revision to the bankruptcy code, that would have allowed all mortgages to be rewritten in bankruptcy, never would have gotten through Congress, that doesn't mean Obama could not have gotten a more limited version passed.

For example, the dates at which mortgages were issued could have been narrowly restricted (e.g. 2004-2008). The size of the mortgages could have also been restricted. Does Yglesias know that Evan Bayh never would have agreed to cramdown for mortgages of less than $300,000 issued in a narrow time window, coupled with some huge government contract for a firm he could subsequently work for as a lobbyist in his post-Senate career? 

That is the way presidents get bills passed that they actually want passed. (Look at what Obama will do to get fast-track authority when he wants to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership approved by Congress.) Anyhow, cramdown was almost certainly passable in some form if President Obama wanted to go that route. He didn't, end of story.

 

 
Counterfeits and Unauthorized Copies Print
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 07:03

For some reason the NYT continues to have problems distinguishing between the concept of a counterfeit item and an unauthorized copy. The confusion appears in a column by Yu Hua which uses the term "counterfeit" and "pirated" interchangeably.

The distinction between the two terms is simple and important. A counterfeit item is one where the seller misrepresented its origins to the consumer. In this case the consumer has been ripped off by the seller. By contrast, an unauthorized copy may violate a company's trademark or other intellectual property claim, but it doesn't involve a rip-off of the consumer.

This matters because consumers will presumably assist in cracking down on counterfeits, they are the victims in such cases. On the other hand they benefit from getting unauthorized copies. They are able to buy products at prices that are substantially less than the ones produced by the company's whose intellectual property claims are being violated.

Since this column does not distinguish clearly between the two, it's not possible to understand its complaint. It's not clear whether its common for people in China to order goods on the Internet and not receive the product they are expecting (if this is the case, presumably they would stop buying products on the Internet) or whether goods are being sold that violate intellectual property claims of various companies.

 

Note: Correction made, thanks Andrew and Robert.

 
The NYT Is Worried That It Might Become Hard to Find Good Help in Tehran Print
Sunday, 08 June 2014 11:00

That is the impression that readers of a piece on low birth rates in Iran might be led to believe. The piece told readers that Iran's government wants to raise the country's birth rate from its current 1.3 per couple. According to the piece, the government wants a higher birth rate to increase the power of Iran in the world and the power of its Shiite population in the Islamic world.

Towards the end the piece tells readers:

"Experts say that while birthrates in Iran are very low, there is no real crisis just yet."

It's not clear what the crisis would be in the future if Iran's low fertility rates continue. For those who think it is important that Iran's power in the world grow, or that Shiites become more important in the Islamic world, the continuation of a low birth rate among Iran's Shiites would indeed be bad news. However it is difficult to see why anyone else would be troubled by this prospect.

Iran has had high unemployment for many years and is likely to face continued high unemployment long into the future. In this context, a lower birth rate is likely to be good news since fewer labor market entrants will mean less competition for jobs. This should help to push up wages and living standards for those at the middle and bottom of the income distribution. It would be bad news for those looking for cheap household labor to mow their loans, clean their toilets, and serve as nannies for their kids.

 
Frank Bruni Is Angry That the Government Pays 1000 Times as Much to Peter Peterson as It Does to the Average Kid Print
Sunday, 08 June 2014 05:16

Actually he is not angry about how much money the government pays to Peter Peterson but if he were consistent in his logic he would be. Bruni wrote an apology from older generations to millennials, and one of the central themes is that we are supposed to feel bad about all the money that we get for Social Security and Medicare:

"The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822."

The vast majority of the money going seniors in the Urban Institute's calculation refers to payments for Social Security and Medicare. These are benefits that seniors paid for during their working lifetimes with designated taxes. Ignoring the fact that people paid for these benefits would be as dishonest as ignoring that the fact that a rich person like Peter Peterson could get millions of dollars a year in interest payments on government bonds because he happened to pay to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of government bonds.

Neither Bruni nor economists at the Urban Institute would ever make the mistake of talking about the interest payments to wealthy people on government bonds without noting that these people had paid to buy the bonds. Why do they forget this connection when it comes to talking about Social Security and Medicare benefits?

And these are benefits that are largely paid for. According to an analysis from the Urban Institute, the typical retiree will get slightly less back in Social Security benefits than what they paid into the program in taxes. The cost of their Medicare benefits will substantially exceed what they paid in taxes, however this is due to the fact that health care costs more than twice as much per person in the United States as the average for other wealthy countries.

This is not due to getting better care in the United States. It is due to the fact that our doctors get paid twice as much, our drug companies and medical equipment suppliers charge close to twice as much, and administrators and top management in hospitals and other health care providers get paychecks that are many times larger than their counterparts in other countries.

We may owe an apology to millennials for handing them an enormously unequal economic system, but that is not Bruni's complaint. He wants middle class seniors to apologize for getting benefits that cost lots of money because the wealthy charge so much to provide them. As a practical matter the impact of inequality will swamp any costs that might be associated with Social Security and Medicare.

If young people get their share of the economy's productivity growth their real wages will be close to 50 percent higher in 30 years according to the Social Security trustees projections. On the other hand, if the trend in inequality we have seen over the last three decades continues, their wages will be little changed from what they are today.

Of course Bruni does have a point when it comes to global warming, but here also the class dimension should not be ignored. The media highlighted economic hardships that could come from measures to slow global warming in ways that they never did in other contexts, such as increases in military spending. This has helped bolster the case of those who did not want to take action. So the people who own and control major news outlets like NPR and the NYT should perhaps be signing Bruni's letter, but the bulk of the public who had little say in the matter have less cause.

(I would have Al Gore sign the letter also since the guy could not even be bothered to pay a couple of grad students to maintain a website on his movie/book.)

 

Note: Correction made, thanks folks.

 
The WAPO Still Has Not Heard About the Housing Bubble Print
Saturday, 07 June 2014 13:05

It is amazing that the country has not taken everyone involved with economics -- academic economists, policy economists, economics reporters, and investment advisers -- and thrown them in prison or at least exiled them to some ungodly place where we (I'll go too) could never do any harm again. Look, the housing bubble was incredibly easy to see. I took arithmetic in third grade, apparently I'm the only economist who remembers it.

The housing bubble sent construction and consumption demand soaring, hence the relatively strong growth and low unemployment in the years 2004-2007. Then the bubble burst. In addition to all the fun associated with the financial crisis (bankers too dumb to see the bubble, but well-connected enough so that it didn't matter), the collapse of the bubble meant a huge loss in demand. Instead of having a boom in construction, we went to a big time bust since there had been enormous overbuilding. And consumption plummeted since the bubble-generated equity that was driving it had disappeared.

This is the cause of the recession and the weak recovery. We lost over $1 trillion in annual demand. What was going to replace it, hot air from politicians? Demand comes from consumption, investment, residential investment, government spending, and net exports.

That's it folks -- ain't nowhere else to get demand. So where did we expect the demand to come from to replace what we lost from the collapse of the housing bubble? Were consumers supposed to spend a a larger share of their income after they lost $8 trillion in housing wealth than when they still had that wealth? What have you been smoking?

Were we going to get an investment boom when most companies have vast amounts of excess capacity? I'll come back to residential construction in a moment. We could have the government spend lots of money to boost the economy, but Very Serious People in Washington want us to worry about the budget deficit.

That leaves net exports. If the "net" has you fooled, that's because it is exports minus imports that generate demand. We don't get any jobs from exporting car engines to Mexico to be assembled into cars that are re-imported into the United States. We could look to increase net exports, but that would mean talking about our trade deficit and we aren't supposed to do that. (Don't ask me why, but I don't recall any big pieces on the large jump in the April trade deficit that the Commerce Department reported on Wednesday.)

Okay, let's get back to residential investment which was the motivation for this tirade. The Post had an article with a headline complaining:

"The economy has reached a milestone. No thanks to the housing sector."

The point is that while employment has returned to its pre-crisis level, jobs in the residential construction are still way down.

"While jobs overall are back to their pre-recession peak, residential construction jobs are 34.5 percent below their peak.

"Even if the specialty contractor jobs are stripped away, the residential construction jobs are still way off, almost 27 percent down from the peak, according to a Freddie Mac analysis."

Ummm folks, no one told you about the housing bubble? We aren't going to get back to the number of jobs during the bubble years. We were building homes at a ridiculous rate during the bubble years, why would we expect to get back to the same rate? And, we still have extraordinarily high vacancy rates, according to our friends at the Census Bureau. This will depress new construction. There is no mystery here. 

(There is a separate issue in this article that requires some serious ridicule. The piece notes a sharp rise in the number of construction workers for each home being built. It attributes this to labor hoarding. This is what big manufacturing companies do during a downturn. It is not what small fly by night construction companies do. The reason why reported employment did not fall as much as housing units is that many workers were never reported on company payrolls. Construction companies hired hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers many of whom probably never appeared on their books. Also, many workers will be misclassified as independent contractors. That way the company doesn't have to pay for unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and other benefits. The household survey finds close to 1.5 million more people working in construction than the establishment survey, which is pretty good evidence for this story.)

 
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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.

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