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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Robert Samuelson is Optimistic About the Economy

Robert Samuelson is Optimistic About the Economy

Monday, 25 March 2013 04:52

Well, at least someone is. Let's look at his case:

"The long-dormant housing market is reviving. Home prices and sales are up; homebuilders are increasing production to satisfy rising demand. Personal finances have improved. Loans have been repaid or written off. Since year-end 2009, the ratio of household debt to disposable income has dropped from 130 percent to 111 percent, according to Federal Reserve data. It’s probably still declining. Over the same period, a rising stock market and higher home values have increased household wealth by almost $10 trillion.

"The other piece of good news is the job market. 'The last five months . . . we’ve seen over 200,000 jobs a month in the private sector,' Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke noted last week at a news conference. 'Unemployment [insurance] claims are at the lowest level they’ve been since the crisis.'

"So two large sources of middle-class anxiety and insecurity — jobs and wealth — are slowly easing. The share of 'underwater' homeowners (with mortgages exceeding the value of their homes) has dropped from 21.2 percent in mid-2009 to 14.8 percent in the third quarter of 2012, reports Moody’s Analytics."

Starting with the household debt story, it is important to realize that consumption was unusually high relative to disposable income at the peak of the bubble. It is unlikely to return to such heights unless the bubble returns, which it is not close to doing (thankfully in my view). The vast majority of the wealth created since 2009 has been in the stock market which has doubled in value. The housing market, which was still falling in 2009, is roughly back to its 2009 levels.


By the way, the Moody's figures on underwater homeowners refer to the roughly 50 million who have a mortgage. Almost a third of homeowners own their home outright.

Before anyone gets too excited about Bernanke's assessment of the job picture, it's worth noting that if he made the speech at the same time last year he could have boasted that the economy had created over 240,000 jobs a month over the last five months. The decline in jobless claims is good news, but it is important to realize that many job losers probably no longer qualify for unemployment benefits because they have worked little over the last two years. The rising portion of the unemployed who are ineligible for benefits would lead to a drop in claims even if the rate of layoffs remained unchanged.

In short, some of the factors that Samuelson cites at the end of his piece, like the sequester and the end of the payroll tax cut, are likely to prevent much of an economic takeoff. It is worth noting that we probably don't have to share his concern about:

"Obamacare’s disincentives for job creation (example: Because firms with fewer than 50 workers aren’t required to provide health insurance, the temptation is to stop hiring at 49)"

There are few firms in this situation. (Some small firms already offer health care coverage.) The impact of firms struggling with the 50 employee problem is likely to be invisible in the data.

One point mentioned by Samuelson is worth highlighting. He notes that the Obama administration had been overly optimistic about the pace of the recovery:

"Here’s how the White House Council of Economic Advisers puts it in its latest annual report: 'The administration forecast overpredicted output growth by a small amount in 2010 and by larger amounts in 2011 and the first half of 2012.' Specifically, the Obama administration expected GDP to grow 3 percent in 2012; the actual figure was 2.2 percent."

The timing here is important. The excessive optimism was not a 2010 story, it was a 2011 and 2012 story. The stimulus was in full force in 2010 and faded to near zero in 2011. The problem was not that the administration exaggerated the impact of the stimulus. The problem was that it underestimated the underlying weakness of the economy. It's good to see Samuelson mention this fact in his column, even if he might have done so inadvertently.

Comments (11)Add Comment
No Shame, Low-rated comment [Show]
Oh c'mon
written by Kat, March 25, 2013 9:29
I seriously doubt the first comment is to be taken seriously.
once again on the merry-go-round
written by Peter K., March 25, 2013 10:09
I'm wondering about when the economic forces which blew the housing bubble begin reasserting themselves. What were they? Mindless optimism? Fraud? Greed? MIA regulators? Amnesia?

written by Kaeidic, March 25, 2013 12:20
Yes - part time jobs without benefits, the stuff that dreams are made of. Look at the employment to population ratio, wages data, food stamps usage highest ever, the expected increases in health care costs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera
written by Kat, March 25, 2013 1:11
I'd like to see what would happen to this housing recovery if all the houses being held off the market were released to the market.
I know that unemployment jumped in my area last month when a "shadow inventory" of unemployed reentered the job market.
written by Kat, March 25, 2013 1:17
uh, wouldn't really like to see that-- I'm not Fred Hiatt.
The housing market is reviving?
written by Antiderivative, March 25, 2013 1:36
Perhaps, but it is hardly flourishing. Private residential fixed investment has shown a slight uptick since around 2011 and has just surpassed 1997 levels.

Private building permits have increased, yet are still at at 20 year lows. When adjusted for a per capita basis, they are historical lows.

While the housing market is often a leading indicator and this is good news, it is hardly flourishing.

For the majority of Americans, their wealth is not up. This recession wiped out decades wealth accumulation for many people.

While the uber rich took a substantial hit with regard to wealth, they have largely recovered through the stock market. The stock market has recovered, but Samuelson neglect to point out the fact that this does not affect most Americans in any significant way. The top five percent of Americans overwhelmingly own most of the publicly traded stocks.

I don't mean to rain on Robert Solow's parade, but this piece could have been written two years ago. Plus, it blatantly ignores the fact that we could being doing better. We have the economic tools to promote a full recovery, but lack the political will. Millions do not need to be unemployed due to austerity measures and our infrastructure need not be neglected.
written by Antiderivative, March 25, 2013 1:41
I meant Samuelson, not Solow.
Moderation in all things ....
written by David, March 25, 2013 5:53
... implies the Bhagavad Gita. Wise words.

Yet, on the other hand, rational thought these days could use some rhetorical oomph. Thanks, LastMover, for not being afraid to use the same tools the hasnumusses use, for the better of the commonwealth. Do not despair, the human world cannot argue with the realm of Fact for long, but for a few years, yeah, sure. Doesn't mean they don't die like the rest of us. Gadflies are not a dime a dozen, as are the Ryans and McConnels and Cantors. Dr. Baker serves a function far beyond the paralyzed mental meandering mental mendicants of the GOP and "centrist" pundits, so fear not. The tide is changing.
Why is Samuelson Optimistic?
written by Frankly Curious, March 25, 2013 7:21
I wonder if Samuelson is putting out this optimistic forecast in order to make the argument in other columns that we don't need to wait to cut the budget. "We are already in recovery, so we can raise interest rates and slash the budget." Perhaps I'm cynical, but I just don't trust him.
Robert Samuelson thinks things are getting better?
written by John Q, March 26, 2013 1:32
Time to worry!!

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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.