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Arithmetic Lesson for Robert Samuelson Print
Monday, 30 January 2012 05:29

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.

 
The House is on Fire and Fred Hiatt Is Worried About What Color to Paint the Kitchen Print
Monday, 30 January 2012 05:05

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.  

 
The WSJ Didn't Hear About the Collapse of Japan's Bubbles Print
Sunday, 29 January 2012 22:05

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.

 
English Lessons for WSJ: "Deflation" Means Falling Prices Print
Sunday, 29 January 2012 21:55

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.

 
The Post Gives Another Defense of the One Percent: Mobility Print
Sunday, 29 January 2012 08:43

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.

 
Post Uses News Section to Push Its Editorial Line on Austerity, Again Print
Sunday, 29 January 2012 08:18

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. 

 
Is Thomas Friedman More Incoherent Than Usual? Print
Sunday, 29 January 2012 00:01

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. 

 
The Wall Street Journal Gets it Right on 4th Quarter GDP Print
Saturday, 28 January 2012 18:18
Yes, they noticed the role of inventories. It is still possible to find workers with the necessary skills in the United States.
 
Getting Fourth Quarter GDP Right Print
Saturday, 28 January 2012 09:06

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.

 

 
Do Unions Both Love and Hate Private Equity or Do the Atlantic's Economics Reporters Have Problems With Arithmetic? Print
Friday, 27 January 2012 23:28

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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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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