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Stocks, Flows, and Abenomics Print
Thursday, 14 August 2014 07:05

Matt O'Brien had an interesting post in Wonkblog on the market reactions to Abenomics. O'Brien points out that the rise in Japan's stock market and the fall in the value of the yen since Abe took office are the result of market movements when Japan's markets were closed. This means that the movements in the stock market were driven by traders in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. O'Brien shows that Japan's stock market has actually declined slightly in the period when the Japanese market was open and the yen has risen in value, implying that Japanese investors don't share the views of foreign investors.

This takeaway is not quite right. It is important to remember that the outstanding amount of equity or currency vastly exceeds the amount that is bought and sold in a day or month. Japanese investors obviously noticed the dramatic rise in the stock market and the fall in the yen over the last year and a half. If they did not believe that these movements were based on solid economic foundations, presumably they would have sold their stock and bought yen in a way that offset these movements.

To see this point, imagine you had shares of stock in a company that were trading at $100 per share. Imagine you went away on vacation for two weeks, out of reach of the Internet. When you came back you discovered that the shares were selling at $150 each. If you did not believe that the higher price accurately reflected the outlook for the company's future profit potential, then presumably you would dump your shares and pocket the profit. 

This is clearly not going on in Japan. While the actions of Japanese traders may very slightly be offsetting the enthusiasm of foreign investors, for the most part they obviously share this enthusiasm or they would not be willing to hold the stock of Japanese companies at current prices.

 
Harold Meyerson Says Management Is Ripping Off Shareholders Print
Thursday, 14 August 2014 04:58

Harold Meyerson had an interesting column about how the problem of inequality is not just about low wages at the bottom, but also about people at the top ripping us off. However part of his story is not exactly right.   

At one point the column tells readers:

"As a recent study in the Harvard Business Review concluded, a 'survey of chief financial officers showed that 78% would "give up economic value" and 55% would cancel a project with a positive net present value — that is, willingly harm their companies — to meet Wall Street’s targets and fulfill its desire for "smooth" earnings.'"

While Meyerson portrays this smoothing as benefiting shareholders, as he describes the process, it is actually coming at the expense of shareholders. If the company is sacrificing long-term profitability to meet earnings targets then most shareholders are likely losing in this deal. The most likely winners would be top managers whose bonuses are tied to meeting earnings targets or who have options coming due at specified times.

This distinction is important since it describes alternative political paths. The situation as Meyerson describes it clearly indicates the potential of an alliance with shareholders against top management. Since CEOs and other top management are an important part of the 0.1 percent, reducing their pay could have a substantial impact on income distribution, especially when the spillover effects are taken into account.

In this case, the nature of the problem is a corporate governance structure in which the directors, who are the immediate governing body of the corporation, act in the interest of top management instead of shareholders. Empowering shareholders would then be an effective way to rein in CEO pay.

 
Robert Samuelson Reports on Incompetent Business Owners Print
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 23:11

Every now and then someone inadvertently says something that is truer than intended. Such is the case with a quote that appears in Robert Samuelson's column today.

The piece is devoted to bemoaning the reduction in entrepreneurship which Samuelson somehow thinks is tied to slower job creation. (This relationship is pretty damn weak, but no reason to waste time here.) At one point Samuelson list five possible reasons for the decline in entrepreneurship. Number one is:

"Schools — K-12 plus colleges and universities — aren’t turning out enough skilled workers. 'I have jobs,' said one Texas entrepreneur. 'I just don’t have the talent to fill them.'"

This entrepreneur is likely closer to the mark than he or she realized. The way you find skilled workers is by offering higher wages than your competitors. There are undoubtedly people in the country who have the skills that this entrepreneur needs. If he can't get them to work for him then obviously he is not offering a high enough wage, or as he said, "I just don't have the talent to fill them."

Of course it is possible that this entrepreneur could not afford to offer a high enough wage to attract the skilled workers, but then he really doesn't have the jobs. This would be like someone complaining that they couldn't get a doctor to treat them, without noting the fact that they were only willing to pay $30 an hour. The problem in that case is that the person is unwilling to pay the going wage for doctors.

This story is about as simple as economics gets. If there were a shortage of skilled workers then their wages would be rising. As it is, there is no major group of workers who are seeing rapidly rising wages, therefore it is not plausible that there are shortages of skilled workers.

The problem is likely just what Samuelson quotes the entrepreneur as saying, he lacks the talent to properly run a business.

(Btw, if Samuelson is really looking for causes for the decline of entrepreneurship, the collapse of anti-trust enforcement should probably be on his list.)

 
When Germany Spends Money It Helps Its Neighbors Print
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 04:57

NPR harshly criticized a change in Germany's social security system which allows workers to collect benefits at age 63, rather than the previous age of 65, if they had contributed to the retirement system for 45 years. The piece repeated claims that this expansion of the retirement system was hypocritical, since Germany is demanding austerity from other members of the euro zone. It also implied that it would be a large expense, telling listeners that 50,000 workers are taking advantage of the reduction in the retirement age.

It would have been worth noting that increased spending by Germany helps it neighbors. Since the euro zone is suffering from inadequate demand, when Germany spends more money it helps Italy and Spain since it will create more demand for their goods and services.

These countries may resent that Germany has the money to spend, just as poor people may resent that rich people have the money to spend, but in the context where the rich do have the money, the poor are better off if they spend it than if they don't. While people in the rest of the euro zone have plenty of grounds for resenting the austerity demanded by Germany, which is causing mass unemployment and costing the region trillions of dollars in lost output, if they really don't want Germany to spend more on its retirees, then they must want higher unemployment and less growth in their own countries.

It would also have been useful to put the numbers here in some context. Germany has a labor force of a bit under 43 million, or roughly 28 percent of the size of the U.S. labor force. This means that this flood of new beneficiaries would be equivalent to an addition of 200,000 retirees to the U.S. Social Security system. That would be an increase of approximately 0.6 percent.

The piece also claimed that Germany is facing a labor shortage as more workers retire. It is difficult to know what this is supposed to mean. In a market economy if there are fewer workers, people switch from less productive jobs to more productive jobs. This means that there might be fewer people working in convenience stores, or as housekeepers, and kitchen workers. What's the problem?

 

Note: Typos corrected.

 
Japan's First Quarter Growth is Relevant to Its Second Quarter Contraction Print
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 04:13

The NYT ran an AP article on the contraction in Japan's economy in the 2nd quarter of 2014. The article noted the 6.8 percent annual rate of contraction and told readers that this posed a real problem for Abenomics.

While this rate of decline is undoubtedly a cause of concern, it would have been worth mentioning that its economy grew at a 6.7 percent annual rate in the first quarter. The big factor in this seesaw was a sharp rise in the consumption tax that went into effect in April. This tax increase led many people to pull major purchases forward. As a result, they bought cars, appliances, and other expensive items in the first quarter that they would have otherwise bought in the second quarter.

The modest net contraction over the two quarters taken together should still be cause for concern, but it is a very different world than one in which an economy is sinking at close to a 7.0 percent annual rate.

 
Maybe the Housing Market in DC is Slow Because Prices Are Too High Print
Tuesday, 12 August 2014 07:02

The Washington Post had an article dedicated to uncovering the reason that the housing market in Washington has been slow in recent months. While it runs through several possible explanations it leaves off the most obvious one: prices are too high.

Inflation adjusted house prices are more than 50 percent above their pre-bubble levels. Back in good old econ 101 we always taught that if supply exceeded demand then the price should fall. The fact that prices in DC are so far above their pre-bubble level would be good evidence that this is the problem.

 
The Fed's Vice Chair Still Doesn't Know About the Housing Bubble Print
Tuesday, 12 August 2014 04:51

News apparently travels slowly in the nation's capital. The New York Times reported on a speech by Stanley Fischer, the vice chair of the Fed, in which he expressed confusion over the causes of the weak recovery.

It would have been helpful to express the views of economists who could have expressed surprise over Fischer's confusion. When the housing bubble collapsed, there was a massive loss of demand. Spending on residential construction fell back by more than 4.0 percentage points of GDP. With the loss of $8 trillion in housing wealth, consumption fell back by close to 3.0 percentage points of GDP. This created a total gap of 7 percentage points of GDP, which is close to $1.2 trillion in today's economy.

Residential construction has recovered to some extent, but it is still well below its bubble peaks. Unless we see another bubble, there is no reason to expect construction to get back anywhere near its 2005-2006 share of GDP. Consumption has also recovered to some extent, but without the bubble wealth that drove it, there is no reason to expect it to reach the same share of output as in the bubble years.

Unless Fischer has some very novel theory of the economy, there would have been no reason to expect a more rapid bounce back of the economy than what we saw, especially after the federal government turned to austerity in 2011. It would have been helpful if the NYT had focused on the seeming confusion in Fischer's thinking.

 

Addendum:

Having read Fischer's speech, I think the confusion is more in the reporting than in the speech, which seems largely on the mark on the current state of the economy. The spelling of "Fischer" has also been corrected.

 
The Postal Service Would Have Broken Even Without Accounting Charges Print
Tuesday, 12 August 2014 04:36

The NYT reported that the Postal Service lost $2.0 billion in the third quarter of its 2014 fiscal year. While the piece did note that much of this loss was attributable to a requirement imposed by Congress that the system prefund its retiree health benefits, it would have been useful to also point out that a change in the accounting of liabilities in its workers' compensation fund added $0.6 billion to its losses this quarter. By contrast, in the third quarter of last year the accounting for this fund increased profits by $0.8 billion. Without the charges for workers' compensation and the prefunding of retiree health benefits, the system would not have shown a loss for the third quarter. Excluding these charges it would have shown a profit of $1.0 billion for the first three quarters of the year.

It is also worth noting that the prefunding requirement has little or no precedence in the private sector. It targets an extraordinarily high level of prefunding (many companies pay benefits as current expenses), to be reached in a short period of time. It also uses assumptions on health care cost growth that are far above recent growth rates. 

 
Robert Samuelson Says Economics Is An Inexact Science, Except When He Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare Print
Sunday, 10 August 2014 19:47

Regular readers of the Washington Post have grown fond of Robert Samuelson's repeated calls for cuts to Social Security (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here , and here). At the core of Samuelson's complaints are long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and other sources, that the country will have large deficits 15 years, 25 years, or further in the future.

He likes to say that these deficits are due to Social Security and Medicare, although the main driver is the fact that U.S. health care costs are vastly out of line with costs in the rest of the world. If our doctors, drug companies, and other health care providers got paid the same as their counterparts in other wealthy countries, the projections would show huge surpluses, not deficits. But Samuelson prefers to go after poor and middle class seniors rather than highly paid people in the health care sector.

But this is secondary to the big issue with today's column. Samuelson's repeated hyperventilations about Social Security and Medicare are based on budget projections made for the distant and very distant future. For this purpose Samuelson apparently is willing to accept that economics can be a very precise science even though the past track record of budget forecasters has been atrocious. (For cheap thrills check out these projections for large deficits in the year 2000, big surpluses in 2003, or modest deficits in 2010. In each case the overwhelming source of error was in the economic projection, not policy changes.)

But for today's column arguing that the Fed should be looking to raise interest rates sooner rather than later Samuelson has serious reservations about the quality of economic predictions:

"Although economists are arguing furiously over this [whether the Fed should be raising interest rates], there’s no scientific way to measure slack. Economic policymaking is often an exercise in educated guesswork, built on imperfect statistics, shaky assumptions, incomplete theories and political preferences. This is an instructive case in point."

He concludes the piece:

"The Fed is expected to begin raising rates in 2015, but the time and pace are unknown. The danger of waiting too long or going too slow is that inflation, now controlled in the market and in Americans’ thinking, will escape these convenient bounds. Once that happens — as the double-digit inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s showed — inflation takes on a life of its own and becomes self-fulfilling. It can be suppressed only through tight credit, recession and high unemployment. We don’t want to go there."

Read more...

 

 
In Connecticut, If Businesses Are Upset By Rising Wages, It Doesn't Matter What the Facts Are Print
Sunday, 10 August 2014 08:26

That's pretty much what David Treadwell, the spokesperson for the state's Department of Economic and Community Development told an AP reporter. The article reports on a subsidized loan from the state to a German company to finance a training center for its workers. The piece then cites the views of several economists that there is no evidence that Connecticut has a shortage of trained workers. Among other things, a shortage would generally be associated with rapidly rising wages, which the state is not seeing.

It then concludes with a quote from Mr. Treadwell:

"She's hearing from the businesses and they're saying it is a problem, ...  It doesn't necessarily matter what the economists are saying."

There you have it.

 

 
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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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