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Chilean Students are Protesting Cuts to Education, Quick What Do the Bankers Think? Print
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 19:46
That must have been what the editors at Reuters asked their reporter in Chile. How else could one explain the quote from the head of research at a Santiago brokerage house at the end of a short story on student protests. I guess no story is complete without presenting the view of the financial sector on the topic.
 
Productivity, Profits, and Job Growth Print
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 14:07

An AP article on the latest productivity data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was a bit confused on the relationship between productivity, profits, and job growth. The article noted the 0.3 percent decline in productivity reported for the second quarter. This followed a decline of 0.6 percent in the first quarter. It suggested that this could be bad for hiring since it would reduce corporate profits and leave them with less money to hire additional workers.

Actually, slower productivity growth can be good for hiring. Increased productivity and hiring are alternative ways for meeting additional demand for labor. If employers find that they can't get more productivity out of the existing workforce, then they have no choice but to hire more labor (which could mean overtime) in order to meet an increase in demand.

Profits on the other hand tend to be very weakly correlated with employment growth. Firms will not hire more workers just because they have higher profits, they hire more workers when they feel they have the demand for additional workers. This is why hiring was very weak in 2010 even though profits had bounced back to their pre-recession level.

It is also worth noting that productivity is poorly measured and the data are subject to large revisions. For example, productivity growth in the first quarter had been previously reported as 1.8 percent. For this reason preliminary productivity data must always be viewed with considerable skepticism.

It is worth noting that the weak productivity growth of the last year appears to be offsetting the rapid growth from earlier in the downturn. This has left the economy slightly below its post-1995 productivity growth path. Several analysts had suggested that there had been a qualitatively leap in productivity growth earlier in the downturn and offered this as an explanation for slow job growth. It now seems that firms were simply quicker to lay off workers than usual, which explains the unusually fast productivity growth early in the downturn.

 

Productivity Growth, 1995-2011

prod

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 
The Post Is Learning a Bit More About Trade and the Economy Print
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 04:56

In an article on the value of the dollar the Washington Post noted that a high dollar makes U.S. goods less competitive in international markets. While this is an improvement over pieces that warn the dollar could plummet if the U.S. doesn't get its budget deficit down, the article still remains confused on the issue. It later told readers:

"For the better part of the past decade, the dollar has steadily lost value against other international currencies, reflecting both the rapid economic growth of many developing countries and a persistent U.S. pattern of spending more than it takes in."

Of course the U.S. pattern of spending more than it takes in is due to the fact that the dollar is too high. In a system of floating exchange rates, like the one we have, the price of currencies is supposed to fluctuate to bring trade into balance. This means that the trade deficit is caused by the over-valued dollar and a decline in the dollar is the predictable result.

 
Son of Senator Simpson Misrepresents His Plan on NPR Print
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 04:31

Steve Inskeep allowed former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (who is also the son of a Wyoming senator) to misrepresent the deficit reduction plan that he co-authored with Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles. Simpson complained that most of the criticism he got came from people in their 70s, which he said was foolish because his plan would not even hurt people in their 70s.

This is not true. Senator Simpson's plan calls for changing the indexation formula for Social Security. Under Simpson's plan benefits would fall by roughly 0.3 percentage points annually compared with the current benefit schedule. After 10 years this would imply a benefit cut of 3 percent, after 20 years the cut would be 6 percent, and after 30 years it would be almost 9 percent. (Simpson's plan does provide a 5 percent boost to benefits after 20 years of retirement.)

Senator Simpson's plan would be a much larger hit to the income of seniors than most of the tax increases that were discussed in the debt ceiling debate. He should not have been allowed to so grossly misrepresent his plan to listeners.

Senator Simpson also was allowed to imply that President Obama's health care plan would be hugely costly, telling listeners that we could not afford it. The Congressional Budget Office's projections show that the plan would actually reduce the deficit while extending coverage.

 
NYT Gets Carried Away With Recession Watch Print
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 04:13

The NYT got a bit overenthusiastic about the prospects for a double-dip recession. It told readers:

"the most recent government reports of consumer spending and factory orders show that both have been falling."

This is not quite right. The most recent data on consumer spending showed that it was flat in June. The key category in factory orders is orders for capital goods. This represents investment demand, which reflects firms' confidence about future business prospects. Excluding aircraft (which are highly volatile) new orders for capital goods rose 1.1 percent in June after rising 1.7 percent in May. (The numbers would be roughly the same if aircraft are included.)

The article also includes a peculiar discussion of the housing market and its impact on the economy. It told readers:

"Some housing experts warn that further declines in home prices could help set off another recession. 'The wait-and-see attitude begets more bad economic data, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,' said Andrew D. Goldberg, market strategist for J.P. Morgan Funds, an asset manager.

"The downward cycle that could be at play is known by some economists as a 'feedback loop' — when one piece of bad economic data has a way of making everything else worse."

Actually, we should fully expect a further decline in house prices since house prices are still about 10 percent above their long-term trend level. This decline in house prices will likely be associated with a further rise in the savings rate from its current 5 percent level, back to its pre-bubble post-war average of 8 percent.

 
New York Times Puts Editorial on Deficit Reduction on Front Page Print
Monday, 08 August 2011 10:05

A front page NYT article on the impact of the S&P downgrade included several assertions that were not supported by evidence. For example, the article told readers in the second paragraph:

"Even before the panel [the congressional commission established in the debt agreement] is appointed, its mission is expanding. Its role is not just to cut the annual budget deficit and slow the explosive growth of federal debt but also to appease the markets and help restore the United States’ top credit rating of AAA. Otherwise, taxpayers may eventually have to pay more in interest for every dollar borrowed by the Treasury."

This assertion is not sourced to anyone. Also, in the wake of the downgrade, interest rates on Treasury bonds have fallen, not risen. While this is likely the result of concerns over the survival of the euro, it indicates that financial markets are not especially concerned over S&P's downgrade.

The article also asserted that members of the congressional panel will have to "mute ideological disagreements." It is not clear that members of Congress have ideological disagreements. Members of Congress get elected because of their ability to appeal to powerful interest groups. The differences around proposals to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare or to raise taxes on the wealthy most obviously stem from the different interest groups being represented. It is not obvious that the ideology of individual members of Congress matters, since their ability to keep their jobs will depend on the extent to which members of Congress can keep their backers satisfied.

It also would have been useful to include the views of members of Congress who ridiculed the downgrade, pointing out that S&P had rated hundreds of billions of subprime mortgage backed securities as investment grade. It also had given top investment grade ratings to both Lehman and AIG until the day they collapsed. It also was off by $2 trillion in its calculations of U.S. indebtedness. In other words, there are very good reasons not to take S&P's ratings seriously and there certainly many people who do not, including it seems investors in financial markets.

 
A New Metric for Military Spending from Robert Samuelson! Print
Monday, 08 August 2011 04:42

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson came up with a new metric for measuring the size of the military budget. He told readers that under last week's debt deal:

"defense spending would shrink to 15 percent of the budget by 2016. This would be the lowest share since before World War II."

Wow, military spending measured as a share of the budget, what a great concept! The Samuelson measure means that we should be spending more money on the military if we were to have a national health insurance program run through the government, like Medicare. It also implies that if we privatize Medicare and Social Security, then we should cut back the military to keep its share of the budget in its normal historical range.

And remember, you can only find this in the Washington Post.

 
No One Told the Post About the Euro Zone Crisis Print
Monday, 08 August 2011 04:20

It's apparently hard to get economic news at the Washington Post. How else can one explain the fact that it explains the movement of markets over the weekend only in reference to S&P's downgrade of U.S. debt and completely ignores the debt crisis in Europe that could lead to the collapse of the euro. The latter threatens the same sort of freeze up of the financial system that we saw in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy. It is likely that markets were more concerned about this prospect than the downgrade by one of the three major credit rating agencies.

The article also includes a bizarre quote from Kazahiro Takahashi, general manager of investment research with Daiwa Securities:

"But he still thinks the fallout is likely to be severe, as evidenced by Japan’s 1998 credit downgrade. After ratings agency Moody’s took away Japan’s top-notch credit rating, the Japanese economy experienced deflation, or a period of falling prices, which led to stagnated economic growth, he said.

'The same kind of problem should be expected for the U.S. economy, too, ... Of course, if the U.S. economy, the largest economy in the world, becomes deflationary like Japan, that would have a great impact for the world economy.'"

It is unlikely that the Post could find many other analysts who believe that the United States is about to experience deflation and even fewer who believe that the downgrade makes deflation more likely. If the U.S. was actually having difficulty taxing and borrowing to meet its debt payments, then it would most likely print more money to pay its debt. This would tend to increase inflationary pressure, not deflationary pressure.

It also would have been worth noting that S&P's downgrade of Japan's debt in 2002 had no noticeable impact on Japanese interest rates. The government can still borrow long-term at interest rates just over 1.0 percent. Furthermore, this was a clear example where Moody's was completely wrong. It is now 13 years after the downgrade, no one believes that Japan is anywhere close to defaulting on its debt. And, because of the deflation over this period, bondholders are getting repaid in yen that are worth more than the yen they lent.

 
Greenspan on Face the Nation and Quoted on NPR Print
Monday, 08 August 2011 04:02

Former Federal Reserve Board chair Alan Greenspan shared his wisdom on Face the Nation yesterday. His wise words were presented in the top of the hour news segment on Morning Edition.

Greenspan is best known for being unable to see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy. Given Greenspan's obviously limited understanding of economics, one wonders if Face the Nation and NPR were unable to find a street drunk to share their views. 

 
Reign of Confusion at the NYT Print
Sunday, 07 August 2011 19:22

The NYT told readers that a second recession could be even worse than the first. The reason is that people will have less of a cushion going in and that we are supposedly out of policy tools to get us out. There is some serious confusion here that is worth addressing.

First, it is true that most families have little left in reserve to deal with another layoff, so the NYT is absolutely right that a second downturn would really whack people that are already hurting. But there are two important points to make on this.

First, precisely because the economy is still badly depressed in many ways it is much less likely that we will see a recession. Remember a recession means two quarters of negative growth. To have negative growth there have to be sectors of the economy that are shrinking. Typically this would be construction and car purchases.

As it stands, construction (both residential and non-residential) are seriously depressed. It is difficult to imagine that either sector could fall much more than it already has. This means any negative impact that they have on the economy will be very limited. The auto sector is also still well-below pre-recession levels of sales. If it were to dip by another 10-15 percent (a very large dip), it would not have that much impact on the economy.

Consumption more generally is growing, albeit slowly. This is 70 percent of output, and even modest growth in consumption is likely to keep the economy growing. The government sector is shrinking, but only at around a 2 percent annual rate. So, we have to offset a sector that is about 20 percent of GDP shrinking at a 2 percent rate to stay in positive territory.

That is a pretty low bar. I think the double-dip crowd has not done their homework.

The second point is that a double-dip is not the sort of game-changing event that many seem to think. If we have a prolonged period of weak growth, that means rising unemployment and increased suffering. There is no magic to going negative. If we had 2 quarters where the economy shrank by 0.3 percent and followed by a year of 7 percent growth, this would be a great deal.

By contrast, we may be looking at 2 years or more where the growth could be in the range of 2.0 percent or even less. When we have 9.1 percent unemployment, this is an outrage. If we get people applauding because at least we are not seeing a double dip, then we have to calmly escort these ignorant beings to somewhere far away from economic policy discussions. They clearly do not have a clue and need to try a different line of work.

Finally, it is 100 percent nonsense to say that the government is out of policy options. We can do more stimulus. The financial markets are yelling at the government at the top of their lungs saying "borrow more money." That's what 2.6 percent interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds means. There are balanced-budget worshipping politicians who say that the government can't do anything, but this is not true and the NYT has no business repeating it.

The Fed could also do more. For some reason the article does not mention policies that Ben Bernanke has himself suggested: targeting a long-term interest rate (e.g. a 1.0 percent 5-year Treasury rate) or a higher rate of inflation (e.g. 3-4 percent). The former was mentioned by Bernanke at his Jackson Hole speech last summer; the latter in a paper that he wrote while still a professor at Princeton. Both could help to boost demand and create jobs.

The government could also try to create jobs by taking steps to lower the value of the dollar. The Chinese government has been making threats that it will stop buying up U.S. government debt if we don't take their advice. The Obama administration could ask what they most want and then do the exact opposite. If the Chinese government stops buying U.S. assets then the dollar will fall against the yuan. This is equivalent to imposing a tariff on Chinese imports and giving a subsidy to U.S. exports. In other words, it should lead to a burst in net exports which will lift the economy and create jobs.

Finally, the government could promote work sharing. Every month employers lay off or fire 2 million workers. If the government gave incentives so that employers were persuaded to shorten hours rather dump employees, and this reduced this figure by 10 percent, it would be equivalent to creating another 200,000 jobs per month.

In short, there is much that the government can do to create jobs. It is understandable that incumbent politicians would want to push the "nothing we can do line" to justify their own failings, however news outlets have no business passing along these excuses which are not true.  

 
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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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