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Alan Greenspan Insists That He Knows Nothing About the Economy Print
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 19:31

That's what the Dow Jones effectively told readers today. The article reported that in response to a question at a conference:

"Greenspan also said he believes that the sharp rise in gold prices is due to market concerns about inflation taking off in the long run. He noted how there has never been such a major expansion of credit in U.S. economic history."

Let's look this one up. There is an organization called the "Federal Reserve Board" that puts out really good data on credit. If we look at its most recent Flow of Funds accounts, we see that credit for the economy as a whole expanded at a 3.0 percent annual rate in 2009, a 4.2 percent annual rate in 2010, and a 2.3 percent annual rate in the first quarter of 2011, the most recent quarter for which data is available.

Has there ever been "such a major expansion of credit in U.S. economic history?"

Well, actually credit expanded more rapidly than the 4.2 percent rate in 2010 in every single year that Greenspan chaired the Fed. In fact, it expanded more rapidly in every year in this series (going back to 1976) and probably every year since the Great Depression. In other words, for Alan Greenspan night is day, up is down, he is looking at an extraordinarily slow pace of credit expansion and telling reporters that is the fastest on record.

Of course, Greenspan is probably not familiar with the Flow of Funds data. If he had been, he probably would have noted the historic drop in the ratio of homeowners' equity to market value that occurred even as house prices were soaring to record levels. (Rising house prices translate one to one into equity. Other things equal, rising house prices should have meant a rising ratio of equity to value.) This was a very clear warning sign about the housing bubble to those familiar with the Fed's data.

A serious news service should not be passing along such ill-informed nonsense to its readers uncorrected, except if its purpose is to point out that the person who chaired the Fed for almost two decades doesn't have a clue about the economy.

Maybe Reuters Should Have Talked to Someone Supporting a Financial Transactions Tax Print
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 08:14

A Reuters article on plans by the European Union to impose a tax on foreign exchange transactions (actually the proposed tax would apply to a wide array of financial transactions, not just foreign exchange) reads like an editorial against such a tax. It tells readers that the tax could cause traders to leave the London market, that it would reduce liquidity and thereby increase volatility and also disrupt efforts to develop algorithms for intraday trading. It describes these as unintended consequences of the tax.

If it had talked to a proponent of the tax, she would have noted the size of the taxes being discussed would just raise transactions costs back to where they were in the 80s or 90s. The cost of trading has plummeted in the last 3 decades due to computers. This tax will simply reverse some of this decline. There was already an extremely well-developed market in foreign exchange in the 80s.

The effect of a tax on volatility is unclear. While it reduces the incentive for arbitrage, it will also make speculation less profitable. This could make large speculative swings of the sort that we have seen in financial markets in recent weeks less likely.

Finally, it is not clear why it views the fact that the tax will make it more difficult to construct trading algorithms as an unintended consequence. These algorithms may provide large profits to the people who develop them, but the benefits to the economy and society are likely to be near zero. If a transactions tax discourages skilled mathematicians and computer programmers from developing complex formulas for financial arbitrage and instead has them work in a productive area of the economy, then the tax will have been a great success.


[Addendum: Reuters does go a small bit of the way back toward saving its soul by running this column from my friend Mark Thoma.]

Technology Transfers to China Help the United States Print
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 05:03

The Post had a front page article that implied that we should be concerned about the possibility that GE and other companies were transferring sophisticated technologies to China. Actually, the same argument that holds the United States benefits from importing low cost manufactured goods from China would also hold that it benefits from importing low cost high tech products from China. The latter would put downward pressure on the wages of engineers and other highly-skilled workers, but lead to lower prices for high tech products and thereby free up money for other consumption.

It is interesting that the Post so explicitly expresses its concern, in the news section, about losing high skilled jobs due to trade, but applauds the loss of less-skilled skilled jobs.

Do Not Believe Morning Edition: Spain Did Not Build Up Huge Debt Print
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 04:29

Morning Edition told listeners that Spain has built up huge debt. This is not true. Spain actually was lowering its debt prior to the collapse of its housing bubble in 2007. The recession that resulted from this collapse has led the country to run large deficits, however with four years of large deficits its debt to GDP ratio is still just 52.6 percent of GDP, well below the level in the United States.

It then interviewed an economist who said that Spain's main need was to reform its labor market. While there may be useful labor market reforms that Spain can implement, arguably its biggest problem is the contractionary monetary policy of the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB is run by a perverse cult that worships 2.0 percent inflation and is prepared to sacrifice almost all other economic goals to meet this target.

This is especially harmful to countries like Spain with large trade deficits. Since Spain shares a currency with the rest of the euro zone, the most effective way for it to gain competitiveness is to have its wage growth lag the growth in surplus countries like Germany.

If overall inflation were 3-4 percent, as advocated by many economists, it would be possible for Spain to increase its competitiveness with low positive wage growth. However, with inflation near zero, Spain must actually see wage declines in order to increase its competitiveness. This process of deflation tends to be slow and painful, involving high unemployment for long periods of time. It would have been helpful if Morning Edition had made this basic point to its listeners.

Joe Nocera, Jobs, and Illegal Threats Against Unions Print
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 04:05

Joe Nocera's NYT columns are usually well worth reading, but he really misses the boat in today's complaint about the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) costing jobs. The basic story is that the NLRB is obstructing Boeing's efforts to move production facilities from their unionized facilities in Washington State to non-union South Carolina.

There are several aspects to the issue that are misrepresented in the column. First, this is an issue about the transfer of jobs, not the creation of jobs. The jobs that would be created in South Carolina would come at the expense of jobs in Washington State. Boeing is not becoming less efficient in the production of planes -- it will not require more workers per planes. Nor is likely that it will have any boost in orders, or at least not any time soon. This means that we are debating a transfer of jobs, not arguing over job creation.

The second point is that Nocera unduly credits Boeing for keeping jobs in the United States. Like almost all corporations, Boeing sets up its operations where it expects to minimize its costs.

It actually has outsourced a large amount of work to overseas facilities in the last two decades. This has proven to be a problem for Boeing since it has made it difficult to maintain coordination and quality control. News reports have blamed Boeing's dispersion of production for delays in meeting its delivery schedules. In other words, it has not been patriotism that has led Boeing to keep much of its production in the United States. It was an effort to ensure that it could produce its planes to acceptable standards in a timely manner.

Finally, Nocera misrepresents the issue at hand. No one disputes that Boeing has the right to relocate its operations in a state with few unions and anti-labor laws, like South Carolina. The issue is whether the move to South Carolina was part of an explicit threat directed against the union.

The situation is exactly analogous to moving a plant overseas. A company has the legal right to relocate a facility to Mexico or China in order to reduce its costs. However, it does not have the right to threaten to move if its workers vote to join a union. An explicit threat of this nature would be a violation of labor law, since it would imply that it is punishing its workers for joining a union.

The question in this case is whether the move to South Carolina is part of a threat against its unions. This involves an examination of the record of negotiations and discussions between management and Boeing's unions. Without knowing this history, it is not possible to make an apriori assumption that the NLRB case has no merit, as Nocera does in his column.  

Economists Who Missed the $8 Trillion Housing Bubble that Sank the Economy Prefer Spending Cuts to Tax Increases Print
Monday, 22 August 2011 08:54

CNBC told its audience that 56 percent of the economists who responded to a National Association of Business Economists Survey thought that spending cuts were better than tax increases for reducing the deficit. It would have been worth reminding people that almost all of these people were too incompetent to see the $8 trillion housing bubble that crashed and wrecked the economy.

This is an important piece of information since there is no reason to assume that these economists know any more about the economy than they did four years ago.

Why Doesn't Biden Tell China That U.S. Bonds Are a Bad Investment? Print
Monday, 22 August 2011 06:58
It happens to be true, since the dollar will almost certainly fall if they ever choose to unload their bonds. However more importantly, buying up government bonds is the way that China props up the value of the dollar against the yuan. Ostensibly the Obama administration's policy is that it wants the dollar to fall against the yuan. So why isn't Biden encouraging China not to buy up so many government bonds, and why isn't the Post asking this question?
Fun With Eric Cantor Print
Monday, 22 August 2011 04:55

The Post gave Eric Cantor the opportunity to lay out his economic vision today. Let's have a little fun seeing how many things he got wrong.

Cantor begins by telling us:

"Our country is facing two related but separate crises. The first is the federal government’s debt crisis, the result of decades of fiscal mismanagement by both political parties as well as unsustainable entitlement commitments."

Debt crisis? Does Cantor mean the fact that we have to pay just over 2.0 percent interest on 10-year Treasury bonds, a post-depression low? Of course, there was a near debt crisis when the Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling. If they had held to this position, then legally prohibiting payment of the debt can be viewed as a debt crisis, but this has nothing to do with the level of the debt or its sustainability.

As a practical matter, the debt-to-GDP ratio was actually relatively low prior to the downturn. It had been falling in the Clinton years, so the 90s should not be included in his list of "decades of fiscal mismanagement." Even with the Bush tax cuts, the cost of the wars, and the Medicare drug benefit, the deficit was projected to be just 1.4 percent of GDP in 2009, until the collapse of the housing bubble brought down the economy.

Cantor then tells us:

"the Obama administration’s anti-business, hyper-regulatory, pro-tax agenda has fueled economic uncertainty and sent the message from the administration that 'we want to make it harder to create jobs.'"

He then tells us about, "...the “Transport Rule,” which could eliminate thousands of jobs." Hmmm, thousands of jobs. That's not millions, hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands. Back in the late 90s the economy was generating 3 million jobs a year or 250,000 a month. Cantor's "thousands of jobs," if accurate, would translate into one day's job growth back then. 

But Cantor then comes back with the "ozone regulation" which he tells us "would cost upward of $1 trillion and millions of jobs in the construction industry over the next decade." It would be interesting to know where these numbers came from, perhaps they are somewhere near the story of creation in the bible.

Then we get:

"There is the president’s silence as the National Labor Relations Board seeks to prevent Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina that would create thousands of jobs."

No, this was about shifting jobs from plants that are unionized to plants that are not unionized. There was not an issue of net job creation, unless Cantor thinks that non-union workers are less efficient so that it takes more of them to build a plane.

Cantor next jumps back to taxes, complaining that these regulations:

"coupled with the president’s insistence on raising the top tax rate paid by individuals and small businesses, has resulted in a lag in growth that has added to the debt crisis, contributing to our nation’s credit downgrade."

Yep, President Obama wants to raise the tax rate paid by the wealthy, a group which excludes the vast majority of small business owners, back to the level it was at when we were creating 3 million jobs a year. Clearly this is a job killer.

Oh yes, and the debt crisis has reappeared. It is featured again in the next paragraph:

"The debt crisis threatens our long-term future: the ability of our children and their children to have the same opportunities to succeed that this and previous generations have enjoyed. Republicans passed a budget this spring, written by Rep. Paul Ryan, that would address our challenges head-on by putting in place common-sense reforms to manage our debt over the short and long term."

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Ryan plan would increase the cost of buying Medicare equivalent insurance policies by $34 trillion over the program's 75-year planning horizon. Note that this $34 trillion figure is the higher cost to the country. The total cost shift to future seniors (our children and their children) is $38 trillion.

Then we get another shot at Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

"The president has acknowledged that without reform, spending on entitlement programs is unsustainable. But he has also made clear that he would never support the type of structural changes to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security needed to make these programs solvent as envisioned in our budget."

Mr. Cantor probably missed it, but Congress passed health care reform last year. According to the Medicare trustees, the bill eliminated more than 75 percent of Medicare's long-term shortfall. That's not 100 percent, but Cantor seems more than a bit off the mark when he complains that Obama "would never support the structural changes ... needed to make these programs solvent," at least in reference to Medicare.

Cantor probably also failed to notice that the Republican budget did not include any thing to improve Social Security's long-term budget situation. This was no doubt an oversight.

For those keeping score, a tax increase that is equal to 5 percent of the wage growth projected over the next thirty years would be sufficient to keep the program fully solvent over its 75-year planning horizon. That doesn't sound like an insoluble problem.

Cantor then concludes with a paean to growth. Yes, more growth would be better, but it's not clear why anyone would think that Cantor's path of tax cuts and lax regulation, which we just tried (remember George W. Bush?) would be the route to fast growth.

Okay, enough fun for now, I have work to do.

The Post Goes Into Overdrive In Its Social Security Scare Campaign Print
Monday, 22 August 2011 04:27

Showing once again why it is known as "Fox on 15th Street," the Washington Post headlined an article "Social Security crisis is worsening." The subhead told readers, "rise in disability applications driving it to the verge of insolvency."

Those who read the article carefully will discover that the "it" being driven to insolvency is the Social Security disability program, which is a bit more than one-tenth of the combined retirement, survivors and disability program that people usually think of as "Social Security." The latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that the combined program will be fully solvent until 2038.

Even after this date, the program will still be able to pay 81 percent of scheduled benefits. Alternatively, if taxes were raised enough to make the program fully solvent, the necessary tax increase is equal to about 5 percent of projected wage growth over the next three decades. The Post doesn't like to make these points because it doesn't advance its agenda for cutting Social Security. 

Quick Quiz: How Large is $900 Million? Print
Monday, 22 August 2011 04:14
It is likely that almost no readers of the Post have much clue as to how large the $900 million appropriated for the country's satellite program is relative to the budget or their tax bill. It comes to 0.025 percent of projected spending in 2012 or about $3 per person.
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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.