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Tell NPR, Consumers Are Spending Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 05:39

Morning Edition told listeners that consumers are not spending because they are worried about their jobs. While they undoubtedly are worried about their jobs, they are spending nonetheless. The savings rate for the 3rd quarter was 5.3 percent, well below the post-war average, which is close to 8.0 percent. This level of consumption is a falloff from the peak housing bubble years when the saving rate fell to near zero, but it is still higher than we should expect when house prices fully adjust.

The point is important because it is ridiculous to expect increased consumer spending to lead a recovery. Households, especially those near retirement, must rebuild their wealth after seeing close to $6 trillion in housing wealth disappear. Those who bemoan the lack of consumption apparently still have not recognized the housing bubble and its impact on the economy.

 
Real Estate Prices Have to Fall So That They Can Then Rise and Boost the Economy Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 05:20

That seems to be the argument in a Washington Post column by David M. Smirk. I'm not kidding, here is the essence of the argument laid out in the 3rd and 4th paragraph of the piece:

"A more compelling theory [than inadequate stimulus] is that global assets remain overvalued. Specifically, the price of real estate debt and sovereign debt on bank balance sheets, propped up by government actions, remains too high. The economy can't gain traction until these prices reflect realistic valuations.

Asset prices are important because America has never had a recovery without residential housing leading the way. Real estate values are still high by historic standards. The value of all real estate is roughly $18 trillion, with mortgage debt about $10 trillion. The ratio of mortgage debt to GDP value is 56 percent. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ratio was 29 percent. In the late 1990s it was only 38 percent."

Smirk is right that real estate is still over-valued, but it is hard to understand how a decline in real estate prices will boost the economy. What matters for a residential housing lead recovery is the need for residential housing. This results from excess demand for housing. We have record levels of vacant housing in the country right now. We will have to see quite a drop in housing prices in order to fully absorb the existing supply.

This gets back to the mortgage debt part of the story which has nothing to do with current real estate values, but rather with their past values. Of course the mortgage debt to GDP ratio is too high, that is what happens when you have a housing bubble. People borrow against inflated housing values. Unfortunately, the Washington Post did not have room for columns from people making this point in the years from 2002-2006 when the housing bubble was growing.

It is not clear how Smirk thinks that a drop in housing prices helps this picture. This will worsen the debt burden of homeowners, leaving them with less wealth thereby further reducing consumption. The decline in house prices must happen (we can't sustain bubble-inflated prices indefinitely), but it makes the immediate economic situation worse, not better.

In the real world, this recovery cannot be led by housing construction because this is not the traditional sort of recession. The normal recession comes about because the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy. This leads to a plunge in housing construction creating pent-up demand. When the Fed decides to take its foot off the brakes and get the economy going again it just lowers interest rates, triggers the pent-up demand for housing and the economy takes off.

This recession was the result of the collapse of a housing bubble which led to a huge excess supply of housing. Interest rates are also just about as low as they can possibly be, taking away the option of further declines by simple Fed actions.

Apparently Smirk and the Post failed to notice the difference between this recession and prior downturns. Therefore we get this attack on Obama and Paul Krugman that is incoherent in just about every way.

 
Does it Take Two Days for News from the U.S. to Reach Asian Financial Markets? Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 04:48

That is what the NYT is asking readers to believe when it told them that a rally in Asian markets on Friday was due to the Fed's decision on Wednesday to engage in another round of quantitative easing. Usually, analysts think of markets as forward looking, anticipating events. The NYT is asking us to believe that the Asian markets are still rising in response to a widely anticipated move by the Fed that was announced two days earlier.

It is worth noting that explanations for movements in financial markets is always guess work. The markets do not tell anyone why they moved in the way they did. The movements are the result of millions of individual decisions, some carrying much more weight than others. In some cases it may be evident why a particular movement took place (e.g. a high inflation number leading to a drop in bond prices), but in many cases the explanations are an analyst's interpretation, which may well be wrong.

 
Budget Deficits and Trade Deficits: NYT Reporters Do Not Understand National Income Accounting Print
Thursday, 04 November 2010 07:11

The NYT seems very concerned that the dollar will fall if the budget deficit is not reduced. Usually economists believe that a large budget deficit will increase the value of the dollar. The logic is that higher budget deficits are believed to cause higher interest rates, which makes holding bonds and other dollar denominated assets more attractive. This is how a budget deficit can cause a trade deficit.

The mechanics of this process are somewhat dubious in that there is very little relationship between budget deficits and trade deficits. (In 2000, when the country was running a huge budget surplus, we also had a large and rapidly growing trade deficit.) However, there is a relevant accounting identity which is always true. The trade surplus is equal net national savings. This means that if we have a trade deficit, then net national savings must be negative. The implication of a large trade deficit is that either public savings must be very low or negative (i.e. a large budget deficit) and/or we must have very low private savings. There is no possible way around this accounting identity.

This means that if the U.S. has a large trade deficit, as it currently does, then it must be the case that either households have very low saving or the country has a budget deficit. At the peak of the housing bubble, private saving was very low, since households spent based on their housing bubble wealth. Now that much of this bubble wealth has disappeared with the collapse of house prices, saving has moved back toward more normal levels. This means that to sustain the same level of output, the budget deficit must rise. There is no way around this identity.

A drop in the value of the dollar is the main mechanism for adjusting the trade deficit. This decline is exactly what would be expected in a system of floating exchange rates. However, the people who are concerned about the decline in the dollar, and also want the U.S. government to reduce its budget deficit, must want to see the level of output in the United States to fall and its unemployment rate to rise. That is the only plausible way that the accounting identities can be kept in balance.

The NYT should have pointed out to readers that the people concerned about the decline in the value of the budget deficit lowering the value of the dollar apparently want to see an increase in the unemployment rate in the United States.

This article also includes inappropriate adjectives, like "huge" before "budget deficit" and "expensive" before "entitlement programs." Such adjectives should be left to the opinion page. This would be a more accurate and shorter article without them.

 
Why Does the NYT Think That Politicians Are Philosophers? Print
Thursday, 04 November 2010 05:24

It would seem pretty obvious that politicians respond to the concerns of interest groups. A successful politician manages to garner the support of enough powerful interest groups to get the money and votes to put himself or herself in office. They don't have to pass tests in political philosophy.

Therefore it is peculiar that a NYT article would refer to the "the core philosophical disagreements" between Republicans and Democrats. It is not clear what this means since there is little evidence that either side is guided by philosophy rather than political expediency. Philosophy does not win elections.

 
Doesn't Representative Ryan Know that Firing Workers Slows the Economy? Print
Thursday, 04 November 2010 05:15

That would have been a reasonable question for the Post to ask him after he said:

"We should not allow any tax increases, period, because it's going to slow the economy down ...If you want to get this deficit down, you need two things: economic growth and spending cuts."

While tax increases in a depressed economy so would firing government workers or other forms of spending cuts. Both actions take money out of people's pockets at a time when the economy desperately needs demand.

Representative Ryan should know this fact, but the quote printed by the Post implies that he doesn't. Since Mr. Ryan is in line to be head of the House Budget Committee this is the sort of gaffe that should draw huge attention. It is about five orders of magnitude more important than the sort of comments (e.g. then Senator Obama's reference to "bitter" working class whites in the campaign) that tend to draw attention in the media.

 
Peter Orszag and the Drive to Cut Social Security Print
Thursday, 04 November 2010 04:02

Peter Orszag, President Obama's former budget director, seems determined to cut Social Security. Like most people involved in this quest he is prepared to leave the facts behind and is quick to resort to name calling.

He begins his column by telling readers:

"The budget deficit figured prominently in much of the discussion surrounding yesterday’s election."

This is partly true since the media tend to prominently feature the views of people who discuss the budget deficit in all contexts, but it is absolutely false insofar as the implication is that the deficit was an important factor in the Democrats' defeat. All the polls show that high unemployment was the major factor in the Democrats' loss; the deficit was at most a minor issue. 

Orszag goes on to tell readers that progressives should be happy to see Social Security reform on the agenda since:

"the key issue progressives had been concerned about — individual accounts within Social Security — has been definitively won in their favor (for now)."

It might have been helpful if Orszag had used names, since I don't know any progressives who have this as their "key issue." The progressives who are most visible on this issue have been concerned about a Social Security benefit that is already small by international standards being made still smaller.

This issue of accounts divides progressives, since many support some form of government managed saving accounts as a supplement to Social Security. If Social Security is cut and, as a separate matter accounts are established to supplement Social Security income, it is logically identical to an outcome in which a portion of Social Security is explicitly replaced by private accounts. It is not clear whether Orszag is simply confused here or is deliberately trying to mislead readers.

The next item on Orszag's list of reasons for early cuts is:

"acting now would allow changes to take effect more gradually, cushioning the blow."

It is important to understand this argument, since it is unlikely that many who do understand it would endorse it. Given the 75-year planning horizon, if we cut benefits for people who are retiring in the near future, then we will have to raise taxes and/or cut benefits less for people who are working/retiring in later years. In other words, if we squeeze some money out of the current cohort of near retirees, we will have to get less money out of people in 2050 and 2060.

Is this a good idea? Well, we know that the vast majority of near retirees will have almost nothing other than Social Security to support themselves in retirement. The reason is that the people who always talk about budget deficits were too ignorant of the economy to recognize the dangers of an $8 trillion housing bubble. Since these people were controlling economic policy, middle class workers saw much of the wealth they had accumulated as home equity or in their 401(k) disappear. In other words, the deficit hawks who want "changes to take effect more gradually" want to kick again the people whose wealth was destroyed due to the incredible economic mismanagement of these deficit hawks.

By contrast, the Social Security projections show that workers and retirees will on average be about 40 percent richer in 2040 than they are today and about 70 percent richer by 2060. Why exactly is it important to cut benefits from retirees in 2015 or 2020 who will have very little income, so that their far richer children and grandchildren end up with an income 50 years from now that is only 69 percent higher net of taxes rather than say 70 percent? Orszag obviously feels this redistribution from the relatively wealthy to the relatively poor is important, but he certainly doesn't explain why.  

Orszag concludes by referring to "the left's strident opposition to any serious discussion of Social Security reform." So, the people who disagree with Orszag are "strident." The name-calling might be more warranted if Orszag had a better argument.

 

 
Turning Economic Problems Into Fiscal Problems: Washington Post Repeats David Brooks' Freudian Slip Print
Wednesday, 03 November 2010 05:12

Bring out the scientists, we have uncovered evidence that Freudian slips are contagious. BTP readers will recall NYT columnist David Brooks' wonderful Freudian slip from last week in which he noted that President Obama took office in the middle of a "fiscal crisis." Of course, Brooks meant to say "financial crisis," although in his columns he has certainly helped build up the notion that the country faces a fiscal crisis.

Today, the Washington Post committed a similar mistake. In an article headlined "economic concerns overshadow all others," the Post told readers that:

"But one issue is on their minds like no other this year: the economy. Nearly 40 percent of voters in a recent Washington Post poll rated the nation's fiscal situation as their top concern in the days leading to the election, a far higher proportion than those concerned about immigration, health care, Afghanistan, taxes, the deficit or dysfunction in Washington. (emphasis added)"

There is no doubt that the Post meant to say "economic situation" as indicated by the inclusion of the deficit as an issue that mattered less. The Post has worked tirelessly in the last two years to hype concerns about the deficit in both its opinion and news pages. It constantly raises the concern and rarely provides readers with any context that would allow them to meaningfully assess the size and nature of the problem.

In this case, we get to see the obsession in plain view. Both the reporter and the copy-editor somehow could not recognize this obviously wrong assertion.

 
Why Is Thomas Friedman Afraid of Getting Lower Cost High Tech and Financial Services from India and China? Print
Wednesday, 03 November 2010 04:20

His latest column tells us that he had:

" a scary thought .... What if — for all the hype about China, India and globalization — they’re actually underhyped? What if these sleeping giants are just finishing a 20-year process of getting the basic technological and educational infrastructure in place to become innovation hubs and that we haven’t seen anything yet?"

It's difficult to know what in this story Friedman finds scary. The piece raises the prospect of these countries providing better and lower cost financial and technical services than those we currently receive from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

It is not clear what Friedman's problem is with getting lower cost services. This is the way trade is supposed to benefit economies. Of course, those who work on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley will be hurt, just as steel and auto workers have been hurt by low-cost competition, but the vast majority of the country does not work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. 

If there is a point to Friedman's piece, it is very difficult to understand what it could be.

 

 
Post Misses Uptick in Consumer Spending Print
Tuesday, 02 November 2010 05:08
In an article that reported on the Commerce Department's release of consumption data from September, the Washington Post told readers that: "consumer spending was stuck in the doldrums." Actually, the report showed a very high rate of spending relative to income. The saving rate fell from 5.6 percent in August to 5.3 percent in September. Historically the saving rate has averaged more than 8.0 percent, so consumers are currently spending at a high level relative to their income.
 
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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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