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Speculators Don't Eat Grain Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 05:08

The NYT featured a bizarre column today by a family farmer who expressed concern that financial reform will drive speculators from the grain market. The column tells readers:

"According to the trading commission, about one-third of the long positions in hard red spring wheat futures, which is what I trade on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, are owned by speculators. If speculators were driven out of the market, it would be as if I’d lost a third of my customers."

No, that is not quite right. Speculators may buy one-third of the wheat sold on the market, but unlike other customers, they don't keep it. Instead, they resell it. So, if speculators are driven from the market, it would be comparable to eliminating one-third of the buyers and one-third of the sellers, leaving prices on average unchanged.

The profit of speculators come at the expense of sellers and consumers. This may be an acceptable price, if they lend stability to the market. In effect, speculators can absorb the risk of price swings. However, there are reasons to believe that they can also contribute to price swings, making the market less stable. If this is the case, then their profits are a pure loss to the economy. It is also possible that the volume of speculation in the market far exceeds what would be necessary to stabilize prices. In this case the excess speculation would be a drain on the economy.

 
The Recession Really Is Not Good Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 04:45

David Leonhardt tells readers that the Great Recession has had some silver linings for many workers. High on his list is continued wage growth. This is misleading. All the real wage growth in this downturn occurred in the months of November and December of 2008. This was due to a plunge in the price of oil and other commodities. Since December of 2008 real wages have stagnated.

The wage growth in those two months also followed 6 years of wage stagnation. Essentially, nominal wage growth was eaten up by rising commodity prices during the upturn. These gains were then realized when prices crashed, but it is misleading to imply a pattern of consistent wage growth during the downturn.

avg-real-hr-wage

The piece also correctly notes that unemployment has been concentrated among a smaller segment of the workforce than was true in the 1981-82 recession. This is a direct implication of the high levels of long-term unemployment. However, it is also worth noting that part of the reason that unemployment is more concentrated is that the workforce is much older today.

In the 1981-82 recession the baby boom cohort was between ages 17 and 36, years when workers change jobs frequently. At present, they are between the ages of 46 and 64, years in which workers infrequently change jobs. This means that much of the reason for the greater concentration of unemployment may be due to a change in the workforce rather than the demand side of the market.

 
Has the Washington Post Gone Mad? Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 03:38

Confused readers may wonder based on its lead editorial complaining that supporters of Social Security: "pursue a maddening strategy of minimizing the existence of any problem and accusing those who seek solutions of trying to destroy Social Security (emphasis added)."

The piece begins by telling readers that: "THIS YEAR, for the first time since 1983, Social Security will pay out more in benefits than it receives from payroll taxes -- $41 billion. This development is not an emergency, but it is a warning sign (emphasis in original)." It certainly is a warning sign. The falloff in Social Security tax revenue is a warning that the economy is seriously depressed due to the collapse of the housing bubble. Double digit unemployment leads to all sorts of problems, including the strains that it places on pension funds like Social Security.

In a sane newspaper the next sentence would be pointing out the urgent need to get back to full employment. Instead the Post tells readers:

"Too soon, this year's anomaly will become the norm. By 2037, all the Social Security reserves will have been drained and the income flowing into the program will only be enough to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. If that sounds tolerable, consider that two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security as their main source of income. The average annual benefit is $14,000. Those who care most about avoiding such painful cuts ought to be working on ways to bolster the program's finances -- and soon, when the necessary changes will be less drastic than if action is postponed."

Let's see, it would be intolerable to have Social Security pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits in 2037, but one of the Post preferred cuts is raising the retirement age to 70,a 15 percent cut in benefits when fully phased in. So the Post thinks it would be just fine to have beneficiaries get 85 percent of scheduled benefits in 2037.

Of course doing nothing today, or for the next decade, or even the next two decades, does not imply that beneficiaries will see their benefits cuts by 25 percent in 2037. The Post may not be familiar with the way Congress works, but it tends to wait until issues require action. They would know this if they had heard about the Greenspan Commission, which was established in 1982 to deal with Social Security's last crisis. It produced a set of fixes which is now expected to keep the program solvent for 54 years, and no one missed a check.

While it would not be desirable to wait until the system was literally facing a shortfall, as was the case when the Greenspan Commission, there is little obvious harm to waiting now in terms of the program's finances. A Greenspan Commission size fix put in place in 2030 would leave the program fully solvent for most of the rest of the century.

There is also a very good reason for delay. The opponents of Social Security have been spending huge amounts of money deliberately promoting misinformation. Peter Peterson, the richest and most prominent opponent, has repeatedly asserted that the Social Security trust fund does not exist. This flat earth view of the program has been given respectful treatment at the highest levels of government. When Peterson put on a daylong program on the deficit in the spring both of the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission took part in the program as did former President Clinton.

This massive effort to undermine confidence in the program has been largely successful. Polls show that substantial majorities of younger workers do not expect to receive their Social Security benefits.

That is not a good environment in which to debate substantial changes to the country's most important social program. Since there are several decades until the program faces any real problems, it is entirely reasonable for those who support the program to focus on educating the public about the program's financial health and to seek to delay any major changes until the Peterson-type misinformation campaigns have been defeated.

 
Silliness About the Risks of Deflation Print
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 05:05

Reporters continually discuss deflation as though something magical will happen if the rate of price growth crosses zero, and turns negative. This is silly. The point is that a lower rate of inflation raises real interest rates at a time when we want lower real interest rates. We can't lower nominal rates below zero, so any decline in the inflation rate right now is bad news.

In this sense, 0.5 percent inflation is worse than 1.5 percent inflation. The situation gets still worse if this goes to a negative inflation rate of -0.5 percent. But the drop from 0.5 percent to -0.5 percent is no worse than the drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

This is important to understand because the fixation on deflation implies that somehow everything is okay as long as our inflation rate is still positive. That is not true: the economy is suffering from an enormous output gap leading to tens of millions of people needlessly facing unemployment or underemployment.

 
Final Demand Growth Was 1.3 Percent Print
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 04:28

This item might have been worth mentioning in a discussion of the economy's growth prospects and the Fed's response. Growth has been boosted over the last 4 quarters by an inventory cycle as firms went from depleting to building their inventories. This cycle has now ended. Inventory growth is unlikely to accelerate further in the quarters ahead.

This means that GDP growth will be close to final demand growth. Final demand growth has averaged 1.2 percent in the last four quarters and was 1.3 percent in the most recent quarter. There is no obvious reason to expect that the rate will increase in the near future.

 
If the Consumer Is Not Deceived, It's Not "Counterfeit" Print
Monday, 09 August 2010 04:44

Why do reporters feel the need to indiscriminately label unauthorized copies as "counterfeits"? The distinction is very simple and important. A copy where the consumer understands that they are not getting the brand product is not counterfeit, regardless of whether or not there is an infringement of an individual or company's intellectual property protections. This distinction is important because the consumer is clearly benefiting in this case. The consumer is preferring to purchase the copy rather than the brand product.

By contrast, an actual counterfeit product is ripping off the consumer. The consumer is an ally in combatting counterfeits, whereas consumers benefit from the opportunity to buy unauthorized copies.

This simple distinction is lost at the the Washington Post. It describes markets in China as selling "counterfeit" products when it is very clear that consumers realize that they are not purchasing the brand product.

 
Undocumented Workers and Low Cost Labor Print
Monday, 09 August 2010 04:20

Morning Edition had a piece on people who hire undocumented workers to do tasks like landscaping their yards or cleaning their toilets. It quoted one person as saying that they hire immigrants rather than U.S. citizens or green card holders because she "believes American prices are inflated."

The article doesn't tell listeners what any of the employers in the piece do, but it is an absolute certainty that there would be a huge number of qualified people around the world who would be willing to do their jobs at a much lower wage than they receive. However, most people who work in occupations requiring more education enjoy much more protection from immigrant workers than people who landscape yards or clean toilets.

The position of the people interviewed in this piece is that they are entitled to protection from competition to keep their wages high, while they should be able to hire workers from the developing world at low wages to save money. It would have been helpful if the piece had elucidated their view more clearly.

 
Robert Samuelson Is Worried That the United States is Becoming Less Crowded Print
Monday, 09 August 2010 04:05

Yes, in the strange but true category, we have a columnist with a major national newspaper worrying that population growth in the United States could slow or even reverse. Yes, I have the same fear every time I push my way into the metro at the rush hour or get caught in a huge traffic jam. Imagine how awful it would be if cities were less crowded. It could make housing cheaper, reduce pressure on water and other resources and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Shortages of workers would drive up wages as the least productive jobs go unfilled (e.g. the midnight shift at 7-11 and parking valets at upscale restaurants). It's  a looming catastrophe if ever there was one.

Samuelson bizarrely thinks that slower or negative population growth will hurt the economy. He thinks that it will slow demand growth. There are two simple problems with this story. First, we are in an international economy, so if demand in the U.S. economy is growing less rapidly then we can sell our output elsewhere. The other problem is the big "so what?"

If we can produce everything we want in the United States and still not fully employ our workforce then we can all get longer vacations and have shorter workweeks. In a functioning economic system, having too much is not a problem -- you just work less. In the Netherlands they figured this out -- they use work sharing rather than layoffs to deal with inadequate demand. As a result its unemployment rate is close to 4.0 percent. In Germany, work sharing has been so effective that its unemployment rate is lower today than it was at the start of the downturn.

See, this is really simple for countries that have competent people guiding their economy. It is only inept economic policy that makes a shortage of demand a disaster for people and the economy. Too bad Samuelson won't discuss this failure of economic policy.

 

 
Oil Prices: Which Way Is Up? Print
Sunday, 08 August 2010 07:45

The NYT has a very good piece on the Minerals Management Service and the culture at the agency that led to a disregard of safety and environmental concerns. However, it gets an important point dead wrong at the very beginning. It begins by discussing a lease auction held in March of 1997 and tells readers that this was a period of rising oil prices.

That's not what the data show. Oil prices had been weak throughout the 90s and were headed down in March of 1997. At that point, in inflation-adjusted dollars, oil prices were near their lowest level of the post-war period. This can be seen as a secondary issue in terms of the article's main focus, but it is important to recognize that the world was not suffering from anything resembling an oil shortage at the time that that the government began this renewed push to open the Gulf to drilling.

 
Public Pension Shortfalls: Don't Forget Braindead Economists Print
Saturday, 07 August 2010 22:19

As noted below, the NYT declared class war against school teachers and custodians, arguing that the public must focus on taking away their pensions. The prior note left out a very important point -- if the economists who make projections of pension returns knew arithmetic, then the pension funds would not be facing these huge shortfalls.

These "experts," all of whom draw high salaries in their working careers and much higher pensions than public employees (think of people like Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein, Boston University Professor Lawrence Kotlikoff, and Steve Goss the Chief Actuary for Social Security), all asserted that stocks would average 7.0 percent real returns even when the market was at its bubble peaks. If the market had performed as they had projected, then these pension funds would be just fine today.

In short, the biggest problem with these pension funds is that they listened to the country's leading economic experts in planning for the future. Unfortunately, the workers and the taxpayers will pay for the incompetence of the experts. The experts themselves are protected.  

 
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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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