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Low Interest Rates and Optimism About the Economy Did Not Lure Homebuyers in December Print
Friday, 21 January 2011 06:52

The Post reported on the better than expected numbers on existing home sales reported for December. It told readers that:

"Low interest rates, relatively affordable prices and tentative optimism about the economy helped lure buyers in December."

Actually, the data on existing home sales reports on closed sales in December. It generally takes 6-8 weeks between when a house contract is signed and when the sales are closed. This means that the December data reflect attitudes in October and early November, not December.

 
The New York Times Didn't Hear About the Stock Bubble Print
Friday, 21 January 2011 06:04

The NYT ran a piece profiling Gene Sperling, the new head of President Obama's National Economic Council (NEC), that could have been a paid advertisement. The piece completely ignores the economic imbalances that developed under the Clinton administration and hit their peaks during Sperling's tenure as NEC head, most notably the stock bubble and trade deficit caused by an over-valued dollar.

The article gives Sperling credit for coming up with the idea of using the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton years to "save Social Security," which thereby prevented this money from being either spent or given back in tax cuts. It would have been worth noting that the surplus eventually disappeared as a result of the collapse of the stock bubble and the stimulus measures necessary to get the economy back on its feet.

 
Republicans Detail Plans for Defense Against Martians Print
Friday, 21 January 2011 05:41

The NYT reported in some detail on the plans by conservative Republican House members for large spending cuts. The piece included several comments from Republican members saying that the country was on the edge of default.

It would have been helpful to point out that there is zero evidence to support this contention. Bond holders are willing to hold U.S. government debt at extraordinarily low interest rates. This means that investors who have tens of billions of dollars at stake do not share the concerns about the government's solvency expressed by these members of Congress.

It is also worth pointing out that the United States would never be in the same box as Greece or Ireland, as asserted by one of the representatives quoted in the article. Since the United States has its own currency, it can always have the Federal Reserve Board buy its debt. This can create a risk of inflation (in the current economic environment this risk is near zero), but there is no possibility that U.S. debt will lack buyers, as was the case with Greece and Ireland. 

In other words, this is a totally imaginary threat, like the prospect of Martians invading. It is possible that members really fear an attack from Martians, but responsible news reporting should point out that there is no basis in reality for such fears.

 
The New York Time Starts Making Things Up to Push Deficit Reduction Print
Thursday, 20 January 2011 21:44

The NYT adopted Washington insider standards today. In order to push a deficit reduction agenda, it told readers that the United States has: "an accumulated debt that is starting to weigh on the economy."

The article presents absolutely no evidence (literally) to support this assertion. The way an economist would look for evidence that the debt is weighing on the economy is by examining interest rates. The current interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds is 3.44 percent. This is far lower in both nominal and real terms than it has been (except for the last two years) for most of the last three decades.

In other words, the standard way to measure whether the debt is imposing a burden on the economy is showing clearly that it is not. The NYT's assertion is just a complete fabrication that has no place in a news article.

 
NYT Uses Conservative Talking Points In Its Analysis of Obama's Economic Performance Print
Thursday, 20 January 2011 10:16

The NYT Magazine piece providing the inside story on President Obama's economic team in his first two years is littered with conservative talking points. For beginners we get the hoary myth that businesses are not hiring because they are "uncertain about government policy."

While businesses like to blame uncertainties over tax policy or regulation, there is zero evidence to support this assertion. If firms were seeing demand for labor that would cause them to hire, except for their uncertainty, then we should expect to see large upticks in average hours per worker and increased hiring of temps. In fact, average weekly hours is still down from its pre-recession level. Temp employment is down almost 15 percent from its pre-recession level. This suggests that the problem is lack of demand pure and simple, not uncertainty about regulation and taxes.

It is also worth noting that investment in equipment and software has been rising at almost a 20 percent annual rate over the last four quarters, so it's not accurate to say that businesses are not investing. It is also important to recognize that this component of the economy is only 7 percent of GDP, so if Obama's economic team is counting on business investment to boost the economy out of its slump, they are not very good at arithmetic.

The second business myth is the assertion that trade: "represents one of the 'solutions on the cheap' the president wanted, a way of promoting growth without deficit spending." This comment is made in reference to the South Korea trade agreement. In fact, in both theory and practice these trade deals are projected to have a minimal effect on jobs. U.S. trade deficits have in fact risen with many countries, such as Mexico, following the signing of trade agreements, meaning that they have been in the short-run job losers, not job gainers.

Finally, the piece tells readers that:

"Republicans have made shrinking government the core of their economic message."

Of course they are not really for shrinking government. Most of the Republican leadership supported the bank bailouts. They also support strong patent and copyright protection, which would have the government policing every aspect of people's lives. (One effort at copyright enforcement sought to make the Girl Scouts pay for the songs they sing around camp fires.) The Republicans also supported the 2005 bankruptcy reform that would have the government provide business with a much greater role in acting as a bill collector. The reality is that the Republicans are not interested in shrinking the role of government, even if this is what they say. They are interested in shrinking the government functions that help low and middle income people.

 
President Obama's $45 Billion in Exports to China: Where Is the Ridicule? Print
Wednesday, 19 January 2011 23:46

Suppose that President Obama had a press conference where he announced that he had found a quarter. Once the press corps realized that he was not joking and that this was actually the point of his press conference, they would immediately rush out pieces about how the president was off his rocker.

Well President Obama has not, thus far, had a press conference on the topic, but a "senior administration official" reportedly touted an agreement with China to buy $45 billion in U.S. exports. The Post article provided no information about the time period over which these goods would be purchased (e.g. 2 years? 10 years?), nor is there any reason to believe that the deal actually involves new exports. (One of the items in the Post article is planes being sold by Boeing, the sale of which had already been announced.)

While $45 billion may sound like a big commitment, senior administration officials know that it is not. The United States had a trade deficit with China of more than $250 billion over the first 11 months of 2010. Exports of $45 billion over some indefinite number of future years, many of which were already in the pipeline, will not affect this in any noticeable way.

In other words, it's great that President Obama found a quarter, but he should not be wasting the public's time by telling us about his good luck. The media should be ridiculing him for implying that this is an economically meaningful event.

 
China's Purchase of U.S. Companies Does not Create Jobs in the United States Print
Wednesday, 19 January 2011 05:40

The Washington Post had a front page article touting the growth of investment by Chinese firms in the United States as a way of creating jobs. In fact, as the chart accompanying the article shows, the vast majority of the investment involves buying up existing firms. In most cases, this will not create any jobs.

The amount of new investment has averaged less than $1 billion a year. This is less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. trade deficit with China and not the sort of economic development that would ordinarily merit a front page article.

 
Unemployment: The Problem is the Labor Market, not GDP Print
Wednesday, 19 January 2011 05:10
David Leonhardt has a nice piece pointing out that the difference between the unemployment rate in the United States and most European countries is due to the structure of the labor market, not the rate of GDP. The United States has actually done better in terms of GDP than Germany and most other European countries, yet it has a far worse problem of unemployment. (Germany's unemployment rate is below its pre-recession level.) Germany has encouraged companies to keep workers on working shorter hours. It is also more difficult in general to just lay off workers in Europe. These differences explain the better labor market outcomes in Europe.
 
That "Job Killing" Health Care Bill: AP Does Real Reporting Print
Tuesday, 18 January 2011 13:49

The Republicans have been ranting for most of the last year about the "job killing" health care bill (now changed to "job destroying" in an effort at promoting comity). As I noted yesterday, reporters are supposed to attempt to verify such accusations, not just repeat them.

The Associated Press made precisely the sort of effort at verification that reporters are supposed to do. They found the Republicans came up a bit short in the evidence department. The best they could do was an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated that around 600,000 people would opt out of the labor force if they could get health insurance through the new health care system. The reason is that they would no longer need to work for their health care coverage. This is not exactly "job killing" or "job destroying" – after all, the jobs will still be there, it's just that people will opt not to take them.

In this way we can think of the bill as being job destroying in the same way that winning the lottery might be job destroying. Many people who take home multi-million dollar jackpots opt not to work because they no longer need the money. The Republican methodology would have us worried about "job killing" lottery jackpots.

AP deserves credit for doing the sort of basic fact checking that good reporters do. This sort of reporting provides valuable information to the public.

Addendum:

McClatchey also did its homework.

 
Prices Don't Matter: The Bizarre Case Against Lowering the Dollar/Yuan Exchange Rate Print
Tuesday, 18 January 2011 05:43

Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu argued that the value of the yuan against the dollar is no big deal in determining the U.S. trade balance in China in an NYT column. His argument is bizarre to say the least.

First he argues that the value of the yuan has little to do with the ability of the U.S. to export to China. He points out that exports to China grew at a more rapid rate in the years from 2002 to 2005 when the yuan did not appreciate than in the years from 2005 to 2008 when the value of the yuan rose by almost 20 percent against the dollar.

This is true, but the problem is that the very low base in 2002 makes percent change a very misleading measure. The increase in exports from 2002 to 2005 was $19.1 billion, from $22.1 billion to $41.2 billion. Exports increased by $28.5 billion from 2005 to 2008 to $69.7 billion. The more obvious metric would be the increase as a percent of U.S. GDP, which was considerably larger in the second period.

If one was just looking at percent changes then the near doubling of imports in the three years when the yuan did not rise in value is a striking contrast to the increase of just over 40 percent in the three years in which the yuan rose by 20 percent. Of course a full model would consider relative price changes and other factors, but it takes some serious data abuse to use export volumes to argue that exchange rates don't matter.

The other arguments are equally off-base. Wu claims that if the yuan rose against the dollar then we would simply import more from Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries. There are two problems with this argument. First the list of competing countries is not nearly large enough to replace China as a source of imports. If imports from China fell by a third, this would be roughly equal to Vietnam and Cambodia's combined GDP. The other flaw in this logic is that countries like Vietnam and Cambodia target the value of their currency against the yuan. When China abruptly raised the value of the yuan in 2005, a wide range of countries followed suit. It is likely that further increases in the yuan would also be matched by rises in other currencies leaving the relative valuation of their exports little changed. (If these countries were just interested in gaining more of a competitive advantage of the yuan, they could devalue their currency any day of the week.) 

The final point that Wu makes is that only 15 percent of our exports compete directly against Chinese exports in third markets. This is likely true, but by itself this is already a large volume of trade. Furthermore, this percentage is rising rapidly as China moves into more upscale manufacturing sectors. The share of exports that compete with Chinese goods likely would have been close to zero five years ago.

In short, there is not much of a case here. Economists generally believe that relative prices matter and the exchange rate is a major determinant of relative prices. (Do tariffs of 20 percent matter? The Chinese sure think so.) Mr. Wu's column gives us little reason to discard standard economics.

 
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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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