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House Republican Leader John Boehner Misses Investment Boom Print
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 04:50

That should have been the headline of an article reporting on Representative John Boehner's call for President Obama to fire his top economic officials. The article reports that Boehner asserted: "business operators around the nation were anxious about investing in an uncertain business climate given the new policies coming out of Washington. 'The prospect of higher taxes, stricter rules and more regulation has employers sitting on their hands.'"

The data show businesses are actually increasing investment at a rapid pace. Investment in equipment and software has risen at more than an 18 percent annual rate over the last three quarters. It is newsworthy that Mr. Boehner is apparently unaware of the most basic economic data, since he is making strong assertions that are clearly at odds with reality. Mr. Boehner's ignorance of the state of the economy should have been a prominent item in the news.

 

 
Economists With a Clue Were Not Surprised by the July Plunge in Home Sales Print
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 04:36

The Post told readers that the July plunge in existing home sales "was nearly twice as large as forecast." This is a case where the Post apparently relied on the views of incompetent analysts.

The 27 percent drop in sales is very much in line with what would have been expected given the sharp falloff in applications for purchase mortgages in May. The vast majority of people who buy homes need to get a mortgage. If they are not applying for mortgages, then the odds are that they are not buying a home. Given the 6-8 week lag between applying for mortgages and the closing of a home sale, it was entirely predictable that this plunge in sales would show up in the July sales data. 

The only surprising part of this picture is that professional economists somehow were surprised. Of course most of these people also missed the $8 trillion housing bubble.

 
Demand for Imports From China Isn't Affected by Their Price: It's Silly Season at the NYT Print
Tuesday, 24 August 2010 04:35

The NYT must be having a tough time getting material in the late days of summer. How else to explain an oped from Joseph Massey and Lee Sands that claims that imports from China, and apparently also imports from Japan, do not depend on their price. That's right -- all of you people who wasted time in economics classes where we taught that higher prices meant less demand, you can just forget everything you learned.

It turns out that if the good is imported from China or Japan, price just doesn't matter. We would all gladly pay twice as much for the clothes, steel, computers etc. from China or Japan, rather than buy a domestically produced item, even if it is now cheaper. In fact, we would buy the item from China or Japan even if imports from other countries are now cheaper -- price doesn't matter!!!!!

The authors of this piece apparently do not believe in inflation either. They told readers that the trade deficit with Japan  "hit an all-time high of $90 billion" in 2006, in spite of the fact that the yen had tripled relative to the dollar since the 70s. Those of us old-fashioned economics types would point out that the 2006 deficit was equal to about 0.6 percent of GDP. By contrast, in 1986, when the value of the yen was much lower relative to the dollar, the trade deficit with Japan was more than 1.2 percent of GDP.

For those who are concerned that the United States should be producing more here and creating jobs, Massey and Sands have the answer: we should follow the Obama administration's National Export Initiative and focus "on the 99 percent of American companies that do business exclusively within the domestic market."

That's a great idea. I can't wait until my corner gas station and neighborhood barbershop start exporting to China. Of course, these sorts of businesses are the vast majority of that 99 percent that focus exclusively on the domestic market. It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration gets them to shift their focus to exports.

Pieces like this can really make you hope for the end of summer.

 
Deflation and Waiting Consumers Print
Monday, 23 August 2010 08:11

The NYT had an article this morning warning of the dangers of Japanese-style deflation. While Japan has suffered from weak growth since the collapse of its stock and housing bubble, deflation has not been a serious factor in this weakness. Consumer prices in Japan fell in 6 of the 19 years from 1991 to 2008. The largest decline in this period was a 0.9 percent decline in 2002. (Japan's CPI fell by 1.4 percent in 2009 and is projected to do the same this year.)

The consequences of relatively low rates of deflation are minor. While the article asserts that deflation causes consumers to delay purchases this is implausible on its face. A 1.0 percent rate of deflation would mean that if a person delayed buying a $500 television set for 6 months, they would save $2.50. The gains from delaying smaller purchases would be proportionately less.

The problem facing Japan (and now the United States) is that it would be desirable to have a lower real interest rate. Since nominal rates cannot fall below zero, an inflation rate that is negative makes matters worse by raising the real interest rate. However, the fact that prices are actually falling is not important. The drop in the rate of inflation from 0.5 percent to -0.5 is no different in its impact on the economy than the drop in the inflation rate by 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Both are hurtful because they raise the real interest rate by 1.0 percentage point.

The article also wrongly asserts at one point that Japan is prevented from doing more stimulus because its debt is twice the size of the Japanese economy. This is not a constraint at present. The Japanese central banks hold close to half of the debt, so it does not impose a substantial interest burden on the country. Furthermore, markets are willing to buy government debt at extremely low interest rates, so there is little fear about default or inflation.

It is also worth noting that the Japanese central bank could adopt a policy of targeting a higher inflation rate, such as 3-4 percent. This course of action has been advocated by Paul Krugman, Ben Bernanke, and Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist at the IMF. An article that is ostensibly examining the options available to Japan's policymakers should have noted included this one.

 

 
Washington Post Invents Debate Over "Free Trade" Print
Monday, 23 August 2010 03:40

The Washington Post has a front page article telling readers that the debate over the Korean "free trade" agreement is actually "a dispute over free trade itself." The Korean trade agreement is not in fact a "free trade" agreement. It does not free trade in many areas, for example it does little to reduce barriers to trade for highly paid professional services, like doctors and lawyers' services. The deal also increases some barriers to trade, most notably by increasing copyright and patent protection.

The proponents of the deal use the term "free trade agreement," because "free" has a positive connotation which they hope will help sell the deal politically. They do not use the term because it is true.

Similarly, it is absurd to claim that the United States is having a "dispute over free trade itself." There are no prominent public figures who support free trade. Genuine free trade would eliminate barriers to trade in all goods and services. In areas where these barriers are greatest, like health care, free trade could have an enormous impact in improving living standards and reducing inequality since prices in the United States are so far out of line with prices in the rest of the world.

Instead, the trade agenda of the United States had been about reducing barriers to trade in manufactured goods with the purpose of putting non-college educated workers in direct competition with much lower paid workers in other countries. The predicted and actual result of this policy is to reduce the pay of non-college educated workers, thereby increasing inequality in the United States. This is a policy of one-sided protectionism. It has nothing to do with "free trade."

 
The NYT Discovers That Excessive Population Growth Can Be a Problem Print
Sunday, 22 August 2010 07:14

Last week, the NYT highlighted the fact that China's GDP had surpassed Japan's to become the world second largest economy, an event that had happened many years ago using more realistic measures of purchasing power parity. Today the NYT tells readers that India's population growth: "threatens to turn its demography from a prized asset into a crippling burden." 

Actually, India's population has long been a crippling burden on the country. All its natural resources are severely taxed. The country has almost 4 times the population of the United States with considerably less land. Large portions of the population do not have access to clean water. Continued rapid population growth will make the situation worse, but the size of its population is already a serious problem.

The article includes the bizarre statement:

"With almost 1.2 billion people, India is disproportionately young; roughly half the population is younger than 25. This “demographic dividend” is one reason some economists predict that India could surpass China in economic growth rates within five years. India will have a young, vast work force while a rapidly aging China will face the burden of supporting an older population."

It would have been interesting to see the names of the economists to whom the article refers. Economists usually concern themselves with per capita GDP growth. The fact that a country enjoys more rapid overall growth because it has a growing population, while another country may have a stagnant or even declining population, would not be seen by most economists as a virtue. This is especially the case since the more rapid population growth will be associated with environmental degradation.

The reference to China facing a "burden" of supporting a growing population of retirees is also bizarre. First, what matters is the change in the ratio of dependents, both young and old, to workers. With children comprising a smaller share of China's population, this ratio will not be increasing very rapidly.

Furthermore, if China's rapid growth continues, there is no reason that both workers and retirees cannot enjoy substantial improvements in living standards through time. An increase in the ratio of retirees to workers of 0.5 percent a year would be very rapid. China's economy has been growing at a 10 percent annual rate. Even if this rate were cut in half to 5.0 percent, only a tenth of its growth would be absorbed by the need to support a higher ratio of retirees to workers. The notion that this is a serious burden on a rapidly growing country is silly. 

 

 
The Washington Post Reports Businesses Tell Them That Stimulus Will Boost Hiring, but Doesn't Realize It Print
Friday, 20 August 2010 21:42

The Washington Post interviewed several business leaders who told them that additional stimulus would cause them to hire more workers. However, because of its poor grasp of economic relationships, it failed to understand what the business leaders were saying.

The article begins by asserting that:

"Many Democrats say the economy needs more stimulus. Business lobbyists and their Republican allies say it needs less regulation and lower taxes.... But here in the heartland of America, senior executives say neither side's diagnosis fits."

The article then cites several top executives who say that they will not hire until they see more demand. This is of course exactly the argument of those who urge more stimulus. Stimulus spending will hire workers and/or put money in their pockets through tax breaks. This will cause them to spend more money (the saving rate is still quite low by historical standards), which will translate into more demand for businesses. According to the executives interviewed in this article, additional demand will lead them to hire more workers.

The article also attributes a reluctance to hire workers to uncertainty about the future or pessimism. There is zero evidence that the failure to hire more workers is attributable to anything other than weak demand.

If firms were changing their hiring behavior due to pessimism, then we would expect to see an increase in hours worked per worker. We don't. The increase in average weekly hours since the low-point last fall has not been more rapid than in other recoveries and average weekly hours are still far below their pre-recession level. So, there is no evidence to support the view that hiring patterns are responding to demand any differently than they had in the past.

 

 

 

 
Jobless Claims and Hiring Print
Friday, 20 August 2010 07:08

In an article on the rise in weekly unemployment claims reported yesterday the Post told readers that: "economists say that the weekly claims number needs to get into the low 400,000s and stay there before employers will start hiring new workers and bringing back laid-off ones." Actually, employers are already hiring more than 4 million workers a month. The problem is that roughly 4 million workers a month are also leaving their jobs, half voluntarily and half involuntarily. The decline in claims is an indication of an improving labor market, it is not a signal to employers to start hiring.

It is also worth noting that claims are likely to have to fall below 400,000 before we see a substantial uptick in hiring. Weekly claims had fallen to the 370,000-380,000 range before the economy started generating jobs in the fall of 2003 following the last recession. And the economy has roughly the same number of jobs today as it did then.

 
The Washington Post, Which Is Projected to Go Bankrupt In Coming Years, Misreports Social Security Print
Friday, 20 August 2010 05:30

The Washington Post, which is losing subscribers at the rate of 10 percent a year, felt the need to tell readers in a front page story that many people at a congressional campaign event: "recognized the need to fix Social Security, which is on track to go bankrupt in the coming decades without changes." Actually, the projections show that if no changes are ever made to the program it will only be able to pay 78 percent of scheduled benefits 27 years from now. The program would not go bankrupt.

As a political reality, it is close to absurd to imagine that at a time when beneficiaries are almost 50 percent larger as a share of the voting population that Social Security would be allowed to substantially reduce benefits. Congress has in the past responded quickly to shortfalls in the program and it would almost certainly take steps to ensure that close to full benefits are paid, even if nothing is done over the next 27 years and the projections prove accurate.

It also would have been useful to point out that the discussion of Social Security privatization is largely a diversion of the real issue concerning Social Security. The co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission have both publicly suggested that they would support cuts to Social Security, such as an increase in the retirement age. Such cuts are the most immediate issue affecting the program, not privatization.

 
NPR Joins the Tea Party!!!!! Print
Thursday, 19 August 2010 05:03
In Morning Edition's top of the hour news segment, Carol Van Dam described federal deficits as "out of control." Serious news organizations leave such comments for the editorial section. This is an especially bizarre comment since people with familiar with economics would likely argue that current deficits are too small given the falloff in private sector spending associated with the collapse of the housing bubble.
 
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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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