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Remember the Housing Market? Print
Tuesday, 22 March 2011 05:02

Some folks might have heard of it. We had an $8 trillion bubble in this market in the last decade. It led to a huge construction boom. The wealth created by the temporary run-up in house prices also led to a consumption boom. When the bubble collapsed, construction plummeted and consumption fell back to more normal levels. The collapse of this bubble has given us the worse downturn since the Great Depression.

Given the importance of the housing market for the economy it might be reasonable for the media to pay some attention to important economic releases. However, news outlets don't seem to share that perspective. 

The news of a 9.6 percent drop in home sales in February seems to have escaped the notice of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal noticed the decline but raised the unlikely possibility that bad weather was a major factor explaining the falloff in sales.

This is unlikely since the data reports the number of sales that were closed in February. Since it typically takes 6-8 weeks between a contract's signing and the closing, most of the contracts for homes sold in February would have been signed in December and January. Weather would have only been a factor if bad weather at the end of the month had prevented people from coming in for a closing during February. 

It is also worth noting that both the median and average house price fell sharply in the month. The median house price is now 5.2 percent below its year ago level.

 
The Wall Street Journal Calls the Congressional Budget Office and the Social Security Trustees "Defenders" of Social Security Print
Monday, 21 March 2011 15:48

The WSJ ran an article in which implied that the ability of the Social Security to use the bonds in the trust fund to pay benefits was a debatable point. It noted that the benefits will soon exceed annual taxes, but then commented:

"Defenders of the program say there isn't an immediate need for changes in Social Security. Past surpluses and projected tax receipts are sufficient to pay full benefits until 2037. After that, seniors would get only 75% to 80% of promised benefits if changes aren't made."

Actually, all official budget agencies hold the view attributed by the Journal to "defenders" of the program. This is the law.

It is sort of like saying that "defenders" of Bill Gates say that he has $50 billion to spend as he likes. Defenders of Bill Gates may say this, but it also happens to be true. 

In the same vein, the article seems badly confused about how bonds work. It told readers:

"many Americans believe their retirement benefits are financed by payroll taxes they pay during their working lives. But as a pay-as-you-go system, Social Security uses the money collected from current workers to pay beneficiaries. Congress has changed the rules of the program—such as eligibility and benefit formulas—many times over the years.

For decades, Social Security collected more in taxes than it paid in benefits. The program lent that surplus to the U.S. Treasury by buying government bonds, and the government spent that money."

Many Americans do believe that their retirement benefits are paid by their payroll taxes, just as many believe that the earth is round and the humans evolved from less-developed primates. This happens to be true, so it is strange that the WSJ would explain to readers that people happen to believe what is true.

The fact that the government spent the money it borrowed when it sold bonds to Social Security has nothing to do with the time of day. It has also spent the money it borrowed from Peter Peterson or the government of China when they bought government bonds. Similarly, when General Electric, Boeing or any other company sell bonds they typically spend the money that they borrow. It is not clear what point is intended by this comment, but it has no obvious bearing on the ability of Social Security to pay benefits to retirees.

 
The Japanese Disaster and Plant Shutdowns Print
Monday, 21 March 2011 04:12

There have been numerous media accounts of plant shutdowns (largely in the auto industry) as the result of a cutoff of the supply of parts from Japanese manufacturers due to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. These accounts are somewhat misleading.

While these disruptions may lead to reduced supply of some types of products, they will almost certainly not lead to overall shortages in the market. In other words, there may be some cars that temporarily will be in short supply, but it is almost inconceivable that there will be a shortage of cars more generally. This means that car buyers may switch brands; they will not be unable to buy a car.

In this case, the shutdowns of certain factories are likely to be offset by increased production at other facilities, with the net effect on the industry being close to zero. The shutdowns are of course bad news to the workers affected, but they will be of little consequence to the economy as a whole.

 
The NYT Gives Voice to the Educated Ignorant Young Print
Monday, 21 March 2011 03:58

Let's see, who is doing well in today's economy? Maybe the bankers at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan with their below market bailout money and too big to fail subsidies? Maybe the defense industry with its huge mark-ups and no bid contracts? How about the drug companies who get handed hundreds of billions of dollars each year from government provided patent monopolies?

No, today's educated young are worried about being victimized by high living seniors who get Social Security and Medicare benefits. At least that is what Matthew C. Klein tells us in an oped column in the NYT.

The column bemoans the fact that the author and his highly educated friends see poor job prospects on the horizon. While there is much to complain about, if he really believes that the problem is generically people older than himself, rather than specifically the people who are a lot richer than himself, he has not gotten a very good education.

 
The Problem of Japan's Declining Population Print
Sunday, 20 March 2011 08:27

The Post had yet another piece warning of the horrors of Japan's declining population. Of course Japan is a densely populated country with very high priced land. However, it is possible that if its population declines too much that they will no longer be able to find workers to push people into over-crowded Tokyo subway cars. 

The piece also confuses the importance of foreign holdings of public debt and foreign indebtedness. It argues that Japan need not fear a run on its public debt because the vast majority of the debt is held domestically. The more important issue is that Japan is a huge net creditor country as a result of running large trade surpluses for decades.

Its net indebtedness position is the key factor in this story. If it had a large foreign debt it would have to fear a flight from the yen even if none of its public debt was held by foreigners. Such a run would send the yen plummeting and cause import prices to soar. This is exactly the same risk it would face if foreigners owned its public debt, since the central bank would always have the option to buy the debt sold by foreign investors.

This point is important because many deficit hawks make  the same sort of misleading comment about U.S. debt. Insofar as there is a problem of foreigners holding U.S. debt it is due to the trade deficit the country is running. This gives foreigners the dollars they need to buy U.S. assets of any sort, including the stocks and bonds of private companies, as well as U.S. government debt.

The trade deficit in turn is the result of an over-valued dollar, not the budget deficit. Therefore, if these deficit hawks were really concerned about foreign holdings of U.S. assets then they would be focusing their efforts on getting the value of the dollar down, not reducing the budget deficit.

 
The Post Lashes Out at Effort by France and Germany to Impose Their Will On Fiscally Troubled Euro-Zone Nations Print
Sunday, 20 March 2011 08:15

Sorry this one only seems to be available in print, but the Post had an editorial on Sunday ("The E.U.'s finger in the dike," 3-20-2011: A20) that deserved attention. The piece rightly noted that the latest euro zone rescue package is again likely to come up short and also called attention to the continued under-capitalization of the major European banks. But it also lashed out against a "raw exercise of power by Berlin and Paris."

Was the Post upset about demands that heavily indebted countries raise their retirement ages, end wage indexation or, in the case of Ireland, reduce their minimum wage? Nope, none of these demands struck any negative notes at the Post editorial board. The source of the Post's anger was the demand that Ireland raise its 12.5 percent corporate income tax rate.

 
Fox on 15th (a.k.a "The Washington Post") Continues Its Campaign Against Public Pensions Print
Sunday, 20 March 2011 07:54

The Washington Post continued its attack on public pensions with a front page story that focused on Costa Mesa, a small California city, that it reports is laying off half of its workforce to cover the costs of its pensions. The article then goes on to imply that Costa Mesa is in some way typical of the situation facing state and local governments across the country, telling readers that in 2009, 58 percent of state and local pension funds were less than 80 percent funded. (It is worth noting that the rise in the stock market since its trough in 2009 will have eliminated much of the reported shortfall.)

According to the information presented in the article, Costa Mesa is far from typical. The article claims that 20 percent of the city's revenue will be needed to pay retiree benefits in a few years. The national average is close to 3 percent.

The article also focuses on the pensions of police officers. These pensions are far more generous than those of most public employees. The pensions of non-security personnel average around $20,000 a year. Generally workers have to put in 30 years with the government to receive their pensions, so the cases of these workers retiring with full pensions in their early 50s are rare. Also, nearly a third of state and local employees are not enrolled in Social Security so their pension will likely be their only regular source of retirement income.

 
Thomas Friedman Talks Dumb Print
Saturday, 19 March 2011 22:39

That was his word, but since he brought it up, the term can be rightly applied to his reference to the "unsustainable deficit." Of course people who are not dumb know that the story of exploding budget deficits is a story of exploding private sector health care costs. The United States already spends more than twice as much per person as the average for other wealthy countries, with little obvious benefit in outcomes.

This is why people who are neither dumb nor dishonest talk about the need to fix the country's health care system, not the budget deficit. If the U.S. health care system were as efficient as the system in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands or more than 2 dozen other countries, there would be no long-term deficit problem.

 
News Flash!!!! Prices Rose Last Month! Print
Saturday, 19 March 2011 08:26

CNBC and USA Today told readers the shocking news that:

"A special index created by the Labor Department to measure the actual cost of living for Americans hit a record high in February, according to data released Thursday, surpassing the old high in July 2008."

The piece later went on to present a comment from Stephen Weiss, who is identified as being with Short Hills Capital:

"This speaks to the need for the Fed to include food and energy when they look at inflation rather than regard them as transient costs."

Actually this story is incredibly confused in almost every dimension. Prices rise almost every month with this "special index" and every other consumer price index as can be seen in the chart below.

CCPI

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

There was an extraordinary surge in commodity prices at the beginning of 2008 which was reversed when the world economy sank into recession. Now that the economy is starting to recover and developing countries like China and India are growing rapidly, prices for commodities are recovering from their recession slump. It was entirely predictable that prices would reach a "record high" again as they did in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, etc.

This news also provides no reason whatsoever why the Fed should shift its focus from core inflation, which excludes food and energy prices, to the broader measure that includes these prices. The Fed's actions will have virtually no effect on food and energy prices. These will be determined by world demand. The Fed could raise rates and slow growth in the U.S., but this would have only a marginal impact on the price of food and energy worldwide. Unless we can find a way to slow growth in China, India, and Latin America, we are not likely to see much reduction in food and energy prices.

 
The Post Tells Readers that Brave People Do What the Rich Tell Them to Do Print
Saturday, 19 March 2011 07:43

In an article reporting on a letter from 64 senators urging president Obama to work on the recommendations from the co-chairs of his deficit commission, the Post described President Obama's own smaller budget cuts as "timid." (The sentence appears in the print version, but not in the on-line version.)

This is an interesting perspective. Politicians and policy workers around Washington and the country are being paid billions of dollars by wealthy people like investment banker Peter Peterson to support cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare. It is interesting the Post apparently thinks that it is brave to harm poor and middle class people to benefit the wealthy, while it is "timid" to support the less privileged.

It is also worth pointing out that the Post wrongly refers to the recommendations from the deficit commission's co-chairs, former Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, as the recommendations of the commission. The commission never voted on their proposals which almost certainly would not have been approved given the stated opposition of several commission members. 

 
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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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