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Robert Samuelson Oversells the Case for Economic Optimism Print
Monday, 02 January 2012 03:20

Last summer news reports were filled with ill-informed predictions of a double-dip recession. Now there seem to be many accounts that misrepresent recent economic data to make a case for substantially stronger growth.

Robert Samuelson makes some of the standard errors in outlining a case for optimism. (In fairness, the column also presents a case for pessimism.) For example, he touts the jump in housing starts reported for November, saying, "Housing construction was up 9.3 percent in November over October and 24.3 percent over November 2010."

The increase in starts reported in November was almost entirely attributable to a jump in starts reported for multi-family units. Multi-family starts are highly erratic and frequently have large month-to-month rises and falls. Starts of single-family homes were actually 1.5 percent below their November, 2010 level.

The piece also refers to a jump in pending home sales reported for November. This is a measure of contracts signed. The National Association of Realtors reports that many more contracts are now falling through than in the past, so this rise in contracts does not likely mean a corresponding rise in sales. (In this vein, purchase mortgage applications are running even with or below their year ago level.)

The column also notes that recent construction levels have been well below the number needed to keep even with household growth. This is correct, but we are still far from making up for the overbuilding of the bubble years as indicated by the fact that the vacancy rate remains at near record levels.

(There have been some questions raised about the accuracy of the Census Department's data, claiming that it overstates the number of housing units in the country. Those raising the issue fail to note that measures of housing starts do not include housing units that were created by conversion of commercial or industrial property, such as an old warehouse being turned into condos. The rehabilitation of dilapidated units would also not be included in housing start numbers. There were many cases of both ways of adding to the housing stock during the bubble years. Also, it is important to note that the Census data is giving the percentage of units that are vacant. The critics of this measure must show how the Census methodology would lead it to overstate the share of units that are vacant.)

Finally, the piece notes that household debt levels have fallen since the beginning of the recession, implying that there could be a consumption boom as families are now better positioned to make major purchases. While debt is down, so is wealth. Households have lost close to $8 trillion in housing wealth and another $4 trillion in stock wealth. This would be expected to lead to a sharp drop in consumption through the wealth effect.

At present the saving rate is close to 4.0 percent. This is considerably above the near zero rate at the peak of the bubble, but well below the 8.0 percent average of the pre-bubble years. It seems more likely that, given this massive loss of wealth, the savings rate would be more likely to rise than fall, especially with tens of millions of baby boomers approaching retirement with the prospect of having almost nothing other than their Social Security to support them.

 

Addendum:

I see several comments that refer to the 2010 Census data and imply that it shows fewer vacancies than the quarterly survey numbers that I have been using. I am not sure what 2010 Census data these comments are referring to, but the ones I see show a higher vacancy rate than the quarterly data.

Table 1 of the 2010 Census publication on housing characteristics reports a total of 131,705,000 housing units. This is somewhat higher than the 130,517,000 units reported in the quarterly survey for the second quarter of 2010, the period in which most data collection took place. This implies that the survey had been understating the number of housing units, not overstating as some previous comments had claimed.

The 2010 Census data showed that 116,716,000 of these units were occupied for an occupancy rate of 88.6 percent. This is somewhat lower than the 88.9 percent occupancy rate shown in the quarterly survey data (Table 3, combining full and part-year occupancy). In short, if the 2010 Census is showing us that the quarterly data is understating occupancy and overstating vacancies, I'm not finding it in this publication. 

 
Trumping Incomplete Models on Financial Speculation Taxes Print
Monday, 02 January 2012 03:00

An NYT article on changes in governance rules in the European Union (EU) referred to the United Kingdom's opposition to a financial speculation tax supported by other members of the EU. The article noted that the UK cited a study done by the European Commission that found such a tax could lower GDP by 1.76 percent.

It is worth noting that this projected drop in GDP was derived from a model was intended as a work in progress, not a well developed forecasting technique. This model did not incorporate potentially beneficial effects of a tax such as diverting resources from the financial sector to more productive sectors of the economy.

The model also has several implausible implications. For example, it implies that much of the productivity growth in the last three decades was attributable to the decline in transactions costs in financial markets. This is not a factor in standard growth models, nor do any official projections assume a slowdown in productivity growth based on the fact that it will be impossible for transactions costs to decline as much in the future as they did in the past (because they are so close to zero already). The model also implies that the UK could raise its GDP by almost 10 percent if it eliminated the 0.5 percent tax that it imposes on stock trades.

 
Non-Payment of Credit Default Swaps on Greek Debt Print
Monday, 02 January 2012 02:48

Gretchen Morgenson noted the fact that credit default swaps (CDS) on Greek debt are not being paid off despite the fact that many investors are only getting 50 cents for each dollar of debt. This issue is a bit more complicated than presented in the column.

Major European banks essentially had their arms twisted to "voluntarily" accept a partial write-down on Greek debt. The ruling on the swaps hinged on the fact that no one who held Greek debt did not actually get a payment that they were expecting. The argument was that when the Greek government failed to make a payment, then they should move to collect on their credit default swaps.

This outcome suggests that CDS may not provide as much protection as their purchasers had expected. It also suggests that CDS may not be a good way to speculate on the prospect that a government will face a debt crisis.

 
There Was No Bowles-Simpson Commission Report #4567 Print
Monday, 02 January 2012 02:25

For some reason many people in the policy community feel the need to assert that the deficit commission chaired by Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson produced a report. It did not. The two co-chairs produced a report, which was never submitted for a formal vote since it did not have the support of the necessary majority.

Therefore Christine Romer, the former head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), was mistaken when she referred to the report of the commission. This is simply the report of the co-chairs. 

 
Robert Samuelson, Wrong Again Print
Friday, 30 December 2011 06:47

To his credit, in his column today Robert Samuelson apologized for a mistake in an earlier column. In the prior column he claimed that if Keynes saw the level of indebtedness of countries today, he would not be arguing that governments should be running deficits to stimulate the economy. The problem is that the level of indebtedness in the UK, where Keynes was writing, was far larger in the 30s than the level of indebtedness currently faced by the United States and every other wealthy country, except Japan. 

However, he makes up for this apology by making several new mistakes or misrepresentations. In the former category he repeats what he said in the prior column:

"I was arguing that today’s highly indebted governments have less leeway to adopt massive 'Keynesian' stimulus programs of spending increases or tax cuts without triggering a backlash from bond markets — higher interest rates that undermine the stimulus. I still believe that’s true; the evidence is Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy."

Spain certainly cannot belong on this list since it was not and is not heavily indebted. It was running budget surpluses before the crisis and even now its debt to GDP ratio is still under 70 percent. Ireland also had surpluses and low debt before the crisis, but had its debt surge as a result of assuming the debt of private banks that it rescued.

Samuelson again refuses to note the fact that these countries are in a fundamentally different situation than the United States because they are on the euro and therefore do not issue their own currency. Countries with greater debt burdens, like the UK and Japan, pay far lower interest rates than these euro zone countries. This presumably has something to do with the fact that they have central banks that can buy up their debt if there is a panic in the market. 

In arguing for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Samuelson continues to ignore the fact that retirees pay for these benefits. Older people get a disproportionate share of government spending just as rich people do. In the latter case the reason is that rich people own a disproportionate share of government bonds and therefore get a disproportionate share of the interest paid out by the government each year. It would make as much sense to say that we should cut interest payments to rich people because the money could be better spent on children as it does to say that we should cut Social Security benefits to wealthier beneficiaries. The point is the same in both cases: they paid for these income flows.

Also Samuelson pulls a cheap trick in trying to make his case by telling readers that:

"among the richest fifth, Social Security accounts for slightly less than a fifth of total income."

This is true only because it refers to an average for the top quintile. This average includes the incomes of people like Peter Peterson and Warren Buffet. Ninety percent of Social Security benefits go to individuals with non-Social Security income of less than $40,000 a year. Eliminating the Social Security of people like Peter Peterson will not affect the program in any visible way. The only way to achieve notablyesavings is by reducing benefits for people who by any definition are very middle class. (Remember, for tax purposes people are not rich until their income crosses $200,000 a year.)

The main source of the country's projected long-term budget problems is Medicare and Medicaid. The costs of these programs are driven by our broken health care system. We pay more than twice as much per person for health care in the United States as people in other wealthy countries with little to show in the way of outcomes.

This is not a problem of seniors getting too much in benefits. It is a problem of paying too much for the health care that they and others receive. The answer to this problem is to fix the health care system, not to deny care for seniors. (One obvious route is to rely on increasing trade in health care services, but unfortunately hard-core protectionists dominate public debate so this is rarely even raised as an issue.)

 
Social Security Is NOT Selling Government Bonds Print
Friday, 30 December 2011 06:31

In an article discussing the implications of the extension of the payroll tax cut, the Washington Post told readers:

"This year, the Social Security system projects that it will pay out $46 billion more in benefits than it will collect in cash. It made up for the shortfall by redeeming Treasury bonds bought in years when there were cash surpluses."

This is not true. The Social Security trust fund is projected to earn $114.9 billion in interest on the bonds it holds. It will use a portion of these earnings to pay current benefits. It will not be redeeming its bonds.

 
When Companies Write Off Stock Options Is It an Unfair Tax Break? Print
Friday, 30 December 2011 06:02

The NYT had an interesting piece on a provision in the tax code that allows companies to write off the value of exercised options as employee compensation. This is deducted from profits and reduces their taxes accordingly.

It is not clear that this treatment is improper. In principle, the value that the company is paying the executives getting options is the value of the option at the time it is issued. For example, if a company's stock is current valued at $10, an option to buy the stock at any point in the next five years for $10 a share, may be worth $5. In principle, an award of 1 million options would then be worth $5 million. This is what the company should deduct from its profit at the time the options are issued.

However, the story described in this piece is that companies don't make any deduction from profits when they issue the options (meaning they pay more in taxes in the year of issuance then they actually should), but then deduct the value of options when they are redeemed. This means that if the stock price rises to $30, in this case the company would deduct the $20 million gain on the options (one million $30 shares being sold to the executive for $10) from its taxes. As the piece notes, this is not very different from a situation in which the company just paid the executive with $20 million in stock.

In principle, this tax treatment should be symmetric with the tax treatment where the value of the options is deducted from profits at the time they are issued. The article notes many cases with executives getting large windfalls and companies thereby getting large write-offs due to bounceback from the low stock prices of 2008-2009. While this is true, there were many options issued in the years 2005-2007 that ended up being worthless since the current value of the stock is below the strike price. 

There is an issue that many executives were rewarded for a run-up in strike prices that had nothing to do with their performance, however this is a problem of corrupt corporate governance, not the tax code. It is easy to write contracts that would only reward executives for their performance relative to a reference group so that they do not benefit from an economy-wide improvement. However, this is rarely done because corporate boards are often appointed by top management and have little incentive to reduce their pay.

It is likely that stock options cause problems in national income accounting, since this is one of the ways in which capital gains income is likely to end up being recorded as normal income, leading to an overstatement of the income side measure of GDP when the stock market rises rapidly.

 
The Over-Valued Dollar as Class War Print
Friday, 30 December 2011 05:47

This piece reports on a growing trend among major manufacturers to bring factory jobs back to the United States, but at much lower wages than what they had formerly paid. The article shows clearly how the over-valued dollar that was deliberately engineered by Robert Rubin in the late 90s has put downward pressure on wages of large segments of the U.S. workforce. With the dollar having reversed most of its gains from the 90s, U.S. manufacturing wages can again be competitive with wages in China and other developing countries. Further declines in the dollar will allow manufacturing workers to get higher wages and create more jobs.

Most professionals (doctors, lawyers, economists etc.) are largely protected (by policy) from the sort of competition that manufacturing workers face. For this reason they are likely to benefit from a higher valued dollar since it means that they can get cheaper manufacturing goods and pay less for overseas vacations.

 
Spain Did Not Run Up High Public Debt Print
Thursday, 29 December 2011 05:43

In an article discussing the current budget situation in Italy the NYT told readers:

"Germany has adamantly opposed what it sees as rewarding the bad behavior of southern rim countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, which amassed high public debts and where tax evasion is rampant."

Actually, of this group only Greece was consistently experiencing a rise in its debt to GDP ratio. In Portugal there was some increase in the debt to GDP ratio in the years prior to the recession, but Italy's debt to GDP ratio actually had been trending downward since 2000. Spain was running budget surpluses and had a considerably lower debt to GDP ratio than Germany.

The article also asserts that the market is forcing Italy to reform its budget. This is somewhat misleading since the European Central Bank (ECB) has played a major role in creating current market conditions. The ECB has been considerably less expansionary than the Fed during the downturn, even raising interest rates last spring, ostensibly to fight inflation. In addition to pushing up interest rates on government debt, the ECB's policy has reduced growth and employment, worsening the budget situation of euro zone countries.

 
The Daily Beast Acts Up on the Economy Print
Wednesday, 28 December 2011 14:15

Sometimes a little kid will deliberately be bad just to get attention from her teacher or parents. This seems to be the philosophy of a Daily Beast column by Zachary Karabell, which uses what seems to be some deliberately bad economic analysis to tell us things are really pretty good.

The piece begins with the incredible assertion:

"years from now, when we look back at 2011, it may be remembered as one of the best worst years of the early 21st century. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an extended period where people were more negative, yet remarkably, in the United States at least, not much actually happened."

No, 2011 looks better than 2009 and 2010 and certainly better than ending of 2008, but most of the country would be hard-pressed to find a reason to put 2011 ahead of any of the years prior to the crash. The unemployment rate for the year is likely to average above 9.0 percent. The number of people who are involuntarily underemployed has generally been 8.5 and 9.0 million, close to double the pre-recession level. Millions more have given up looking for work altogether. Real wages have been stagnant or falling for the last 4 years, with little prospect of turning around any time soon as the high rate of unemployment continues to depress wages.

In addition, tens of millions of baby boomers are approaching retirement with almost nothing to support themselves other than their Social Security. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the median older baby boomer (ages 55-64) had just $162,000 in wealth. This is roughly enough to buy the median home. This means that if this household took all of their wealth, they can pay off their mortgage. They would then be completely dependent on their Social Security to support them in retirement. And, half of older baby boomers have less wealth than this.

In short, most of the country is looking at a situation where they are desperate for work or fearful about losing their job. Older workers are looking at a retirement where they are not far above the poverty level, even after spending a life working in middle class jobs. The bad attitudes toward this situation are not the result of "groupthink" as the column asserts, they are the conclusion of people better able to understand the economy than Karabell.

For extra credit in the acting up department Karabell throws in a few broad assertions that are simply wrong. For example he tells us that:

"Overall growth for the next year is shaping up to be 2 percent, give or take. That is pretty lame compared to the heady days of the 1990s or even the mid-2000s. But those seemingly halcyon periods benefited from bubbles, whether the stock market and telecom spending in the 1990s or the housing and debt-inflated growth of the mid-2000s. So while activity now doesn’t look so good by those comparisons, it is actual economic activity undistorted by bubbles. It’s as if the economy of the past 20 years was wearing platform shoes ('Wow, she’s like 6 feet tall'); it looked a lot bigger than it was."

Actually 2.0 percent annual growth would look bad compared to the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, and the 50s. It is simply a very bad growth rate. Trend productivity growth in the U.S. is between 2.0 and 2.5 percent. Labor force growth is averaging around 0.7 percent. This means that we need growth of around 2.5 -3.0 percent just to keep even with the growth of the labor force. At a 2.0 percent growth rate unemployment will be rising, not falling. This has nothing to with platform shoes, it's arithmetic.

Furthermore, given the severity of the downturn we should be seeing growth in a 5-8 percent range to get the economy back to its potential level of output. People should be outraged at the thought that the economy might only grow at a 2.0 percent rate.

Karabell also tells readers:

"It is also true that we have a structural jobs issue, but not an issue of making things and innovating."

If we had a structural jobs issue then there would be sectors of the economy where large numbers of jobs are going unfilled, workers are putting in long hours, and wages are rising rapidly. This would be the result of the labor shortages in these areas.

We don't see any major sectors that fit this bill. That implies that the problem is not one of structural unemployment but simply a lack of demand. We just need the government to spend more money, the Fed to be more aggressive in pushing down long-term interest rates or boosting inflation, or a decline in the value of the dollar to boost exports. We can also put more people to work by having people work shorter hours through work sharing. Saying the problem is structural is simply wrong and points people away from the obvious solutions.

 
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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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