Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of Mystique

Until fairly recently, central banks tended to be secretive and cultivate a "mystique" (hence "Secrets of the Temple" as the title for the 1987 William Greider book about the Fed, which helped inspire my interest in economics). In the early 1980's Karl Brunner explained (via Marvin Goodfriend):
Central Banking [has been] traditionally surrounded by a  peculiar and protective political mystique. Criticism of Central Banks, if it occurred at all in the political arena, [has been] muted and infrequent. The Federal Reserve operated in the USA over decades with little criticism from the public or its political representatives. The same phenomenon can be found in many other countries. The political mystique of Central Banking was, and still is to some extent, widely expressed by an essentially metaphysical approach to monetary affairs and monetary policy-making. The possession of wisdom, perception and relevant knowledge is naturally attributed to the management of Central Banks. The possession of such knowledge and perception bearing on matters of concern to Central Banking is a function of the political position. The relevant knowledge seems automatically obtained with the appointment and could only be manifested to holders of the appropriate position. The mystique thrives on a pervasive impression that Central Banking is an esoteric art. Access to this art and its proper execution is confined to the initiated elite. The esoteric nature of the art is moreover revealed by an inherent impossibility to articulate its insights in explicit and intelligible words and sentences. Communication with the uninitiated breaks down. The proper attitude to be cultivated by the latter is trust and confidence in the initiated group's comprehension of the esoteric knowledge.
Things have changed a great deal since then, and the pace of change has accelerated.  In a recent speech, Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen traced this "revolution" in central bank communication, which academic economists generally regard as an improvement.  It was only in 1994 that the Fed began announcing changes in the federal funds rate target, and I was pretty surprised last year when Bernanke began holding press conferences.

Given all the recent changes, I shouldn't have been surprised to see a further step towards greater central bank openness - Federal Reserve banks are now sending jokey tweets:
So much for that mystique.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New From the Fed: TBG

That is, "Threshold Based Guidance." 

The Federal Open Market Committee's statement today included the following:
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee expects that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends and the economic recovery strengthens. In particular, the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
Since the federal funds rate hit the zero lower bound - four years ago - other monetary policy tools have taken on a more prominent role.  One of them is the Fed's ability to influence expectations, which it tries to do by making promises about future policy ("forward guidance").  Because long-term interest rates depend on expected future short term rates, convincing people that short-term rates will be low for longer can bring down long-term rates, and thereby reduce the cost of investment and credit purchases.  One of the difficulties that the Fed has to get around, though, is that people believe it places a high priority on keeping inflation low and would tighten policy at any hint of the economy heating up.  As Mark Thoma explains:
The Fed believes that policy will be most effective if it can convince people policy will remain loose even after there are signs of a strong recovery.

However, one of the problems the Fed has had in its communications strategy is convincing people it will carry through with this commitment even if inflation drifts above the 2 percent target. In some sense, the Fed has too much credibility on inflation.

The adoption of numerical thresholds -- in particular an inflation threshold that is a half a percent above target and the commitment to maintain present policy "at least" until the thresholds have been met -- is an attempt to overcome this communication problem though a commitment to a clear, well-defined policy rule.
This month's announcement was a shift from its previous statements, which had provided forward guidance in terms of the timing of expected rate increases - e.g., in October, the FOMC said "exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate are likely to be warranted at least through mid-2015."

Of course, quite a lot can happen between now and mid-2015 and the economy may do considerably better or worse than anticipated. Nobody really believes the Fed would keep the federal funds rate target at zero through mid-2015 if the economy suddenly boomed in 2013 (and, though some seemed to interpret it that way, its wasn't trying to claim that it would).  Alternatively, if things aren't much better in 2015, the fed funds rate could stay at zero considerably longer.

Shifting to thresholds spares the Fed the embarrassment of repeatedly re-adjusting the date in its forward guidance.  Announcing that it will allow forecast inflation to go up to 2.5%, which is 0.5% above the long run goal it formalized in January, seems to be an attempt to convince everyone that the Fed doesn't treat its 2% goal as a "below, but close to" target like the ECB does, and that it is willing to give a little on the "stable prices" side of its "dual mandate" in service of its other objective, "maximum employment."  But it won't let inflation get out of hand (or even close) - its a "dovish" statement only  by the standards of monetary policy discourse long-dominated by inflation "hawks".  Stating the goal in terms of the Fed's forecast of inflation means that it won't feel obliged to tighten in response to a burst of inflation it sees as transitory (e.g., due to an energy price shock).  However, putting it in terms of forecast inflation also makes it a little squishier (which is part of Stephen Williamson's critique).

In his press conference, Ben Bernanke also suggested that the threshold based guidance had an "automatic stabilizer" characteristic (and it appeared he was making this argument off the cuff): in the event of a negative shock to the economy, the threshold would cause markets to lengthen the period of expected zero short-term rates, which would bring long-term rates down.  A positive shock would cause the market to expect the threshold for potentially raising rates to come sooner, which would lead to higher long-term rates.

The other part of the Fed's announcement was that it planned to purchase $45 billion of Treasuries per month, which is intended to continue the expansionary effect of its effort to shift the composition of its balance sheet towards longer maturities ("operation twist").  It will also continue to buy $40 billion of mortgage backed securities per month.  This follows through on its October statement that it would be purchasing assets and expanding its balance sheet with no definite limit or end date until a substantial improvement in the labor market "is achieved in a context of price stability."

Overall, the Fed really seems to be stepping up to the plate and seriously trying to address the crisis of persistent high unemployment as best it knows how.  Bernanke's genuine concern about unemployment was evident in the press conference.

Of course, it remains to be seen how much effect the Fed's policies will really have (the Economist's Greg Ip struck a cautionary note) and fiscal policy appears likely to be either somewhat, or highly, contractionary in the coming year depending on the outcome of the "fiscal cliff" bargaining.

As an academic economist, I was particularly amused by Bernanke's response to a question in the press conference about how the FOMC chose the thresholds.  He said that they were based on staff assessments "under so-called optimal policy, or in the best policy that we can come up with, what would the interest rate path look like and how would it be connected or correlated with changes in unemployment and inflation."  That embodies the tension between academic and policy-making economics.  Bernanke comes from the academic world, where we write and discuss papers about "optimal" policies - usually specified in terms of the utility functions of "agents" in the economy - but he now works in the world of "the best policy that we can come up with".

We academics will be debating how sub-optimal the Fed's policy is for years, but at least they're trying to come up with the best policies they can.

See also: Binyamin Applebaum's NYT story, Neil Irwin, Michael Woodford and David Beckworth.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Review of Roger Farmer's Books

My review of Roger E.A. Farmer's Expectations, Employment and Prices and How the Economy Works: Confidence, Crashes and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies has finally appeared in the Eastern Economic Journal.

Farmer's ideas are spiritually Keynesian, but he accepts the belief which developed out of the work of Friedman, Lucas and others, that macroeconomic theory should be consistent with microeconomic optimization.  His point of departure from standard DSGE models (both of the Real Business Cycle and New Keynesian varieties) is that he allows for the lack of a unique equilibrium in the labor market.  This opens up a key role for asset values and confidence in determining output, with the policy implication that monetary policy should be directed at stabilizing asset prices.

Expectations is addressed to a professional audience economics book, while How the Economy Works second is written for a general audience.  How the Economy Works also provides a nice overview of how macroeconomics has evolved which would be a good background for laypersons and students about some of the debates within the field.

A subscription is necessary to read the review, which concludes:
The financial crisis and recession have led to considerable hand-wringing and soul-searching by macroeconomists. Caballero [2010, p. 85] argues that “macroeconomic research has been in ‘fine-tuning’ mode within the local-maximum of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium world, when we should be in ‘broad-exploration’ mode.” Farmer's work answers that call nicely. It is a synthesis in the best sense of the word, blending Keynesian insight with key subsequent developments such as rational expectations, the permanent income hypothesis and the search model of the labor market. It deserves the attention of macroeconomists, who will find it a healthy challenge to their thinking.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dark Matter: A Quick Revisit

Back in the days before the 2007-8 financial crisis, one of the big sources of anxiety among (some of us) macroeconomists was the US current account deficit, a measure of how much the US was borrowing from the rest of the world each year.

After running deficits for most of the 1980s, an export boom helped bring the current account back into a small surplus in 1991 (aided, that year, by the financial assistance the US received from other countries to pay for the Gulf War).  The deficit began to grow again in 1992, and in the mid-2000's seemed to be on an ever-increasing path.

US Current Account (% of GDP), 1980-2006

The flow of borrowing naturally generated an increasing net stock of debt - the United States' foreign liabilities exceeded its assets in 1986, and the net international investment position (assets minus liabilities) became increasingly negative during the 2000's.
Note that the change in the net international investment position doesn't exactly track the current account deficit because of changes in the values of assets.

And yet, while this data seemed to indicate that the US was on an unsustainable borrowing path - and perhaps facing the risk that the willingness of the rest of the world to lend to it could quickly evaporate in a "sudden stop" crisis, like a number of emerging market countries had experienced - the US continued to receive more in income from its foreign assets than it made in payments to foreign holders of US assets.  That is, the income balance part of the current account remained positive.

US Net Income from Abroad, 1980-2006
How could the US consistently generate positive net income from its assets even as it became an increasingly large net debtor?  Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger turned this question on its head - they argued that if the US was earning net income, it should not be considered a net debtor.  In their account US foreign assets were under-estimated, with the official numbers leaving out what they dubbed "dark matter".  In a December, 2005 op-ed, they explained:
We propose a different way of describing the facts. We measure the assets according to how much they earn and the current account by how much these assets change over time. This is just like valuing a company by calculating its earnings and multiplying by a price-earnings ratio. Of course this opens up methodological questions, but the discrepancies with official numbers are so big that the details do not matter. To keep things simple in what follows we just take an arbitrary 5 per cent rate of return, which implies a price-earnings ratio of 20.

Let's get to work. We know that the US net income on its financial portfolio is $30bn. This is a 5 per cent return on an asset of $600bn. So the US is a $600bn net creditor, not a $4,100bn net debtor. Since the assets have remained stable then on average the US has not had a current account deficit at all over the past 25 years. That is why it is still a net creditor.

We call the $4,700bn difference between our measure of US net assets and the standard numbers "dark matter", because it corresponds to assets that generate revenue but cannot be seen. 
This hypothesis generated a considerable amount of discussion, nicely summarized in this Economist article from January 2006.  Many economists were skeptical of such a blithe interpretation of the situation.  One of the people quoted by the Economist was William Cline:
Mr Cline agrees with the dark materialists when they say there is “something misleading about calling a country that makes money on its financial position the world's largest debtor”. But sadly he does not think Americans can stop worrying. After making $36.2 billion in 2004, America made just $4 billion on its net foreign assets in the first three quarters of 2005. If it continues on its present trajectory, it will shell out about $190 billion in 2010, Mr Cline calculates. Using Messrs Hausmann and Sturzenegger's methodology, America's net foreign assets would then amount to minus $3.8 trillion. A dark matter indeed.
Seven years later, the US current account remains in deficit, though much less so:

US Current Account (% of GDP), 2001-2011 

That is, the US is still borrowing from the rest of the world, but at a reduced pace.  The value of the US' net foreign assets has been volatile as markets and currencies have gyrated over the past several years, but the official data says the US is even more in debt to the rest of the world now:
 And yet, the balance of income on foreign assets is more in favor of the US now than ever before:

US Net Income from Abroad, 2001-2011

Repeating Hausmann and Sturzenegger's calculation today says that (as of the end of 2011) the US was a net creditor by $4540 billion.  Relative to the official net international investment position of $4030 billion, that implies a stock of "dark matter" of $8570 billion!

Although the main source of "Dark Matter" in Hausmann and Sturzzenegger's original reckoning was the "know how" that helped US firms earn higher returns on Foreign Direct Investment (i.e., this was the main missing export), the most relevant for understanding what's happened since is probably the idea that the US exports "liquidity" and "insurance" services by selling assets that are considered safe and liquid by the rest of the world (e.g. US Treasury and "agency" - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds), while buying riskier assets.

The worry, circa 2005, was that buyers of US debt would run for the exit, leading to a spike in US interest rates and a collapse in the dollar.  The crisis we actually got had the opposite effect, as everyone rushed into US debt, which has helped drive yields down.  The US' net income is boosted by the fact that its paying very low returns on all those Treasuries being held abroad these days.  In Hausmann and Sturzenegger's framework, the financial crisis has been a huge boon to US exports of (unmeasured) liquidity and insurance services.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Macro Update

The BLS released a moderately good jobs report this morning: payrolls rose by 171,000 in October.  The unemployment rate ticked up by 0.1 to 7.9%, but this was due to a large increase in the labor force. In the household survey (separate from the survey of firms where the headline jobs number comes from), the labor force grew by 578,000.  The number of people employed rose by 410,000, while the number unemployed rose by 170,000, hence the increase in the unemployment rate.  The increase in labor force participation may be a sign that some previously "discouraged" workers may now feel like it is at least worth looking for work (to be counted as "unemployed" one must be looking for work).
The payroll figures for the past two months were also revised upward, by 50,000 for August and 34,000 for September.  While this represents a pick up in the pace of job growth, unemployment remains very high - and some have been out of work for a long time - and the recovery is excruciatingly slow.  As Catherine Rampell notes:
Getting the economy to 5 percent unemployment within two years — a return to the rate that prevailed when the recession began — would require job growth of closer to 280,000 per month.
Calculated Risk provides a useful graph of the employment-population ratio for persons aged 25-54 (as a way of taking out the effect of demographic changes), which illustrates how far the labor market has to go:
Last week's GDP release was also consistent with the picture of a slightly improving but still way-too-slowly growing economy.  The BEA's advance estimate put third-quarter real GDP growth at a 2% annual rate, which is mediocre, but better than the 1.3% in the second quarter.
That is, the economy is growing, and so is employment, but still not fast enough to make up lost ground in the 2008-09 recession.  James Hamilton commented on the report at Econbrowser.

However, historically speaking, downturns caused by financial crises are larger and more persistent than typical recessions.  Moritz Schularick and Alan Taylor and Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff both argue that the US is actually doing a little better than might be expected based on evidence from the aftermaths of past financial crises. That is a useful perspective, particularly for evaluating economic policy (as one might right before an election..).  Arguably, US economic policy has been moderately successful if you grade on a curve compare to an appropriate counterfactual.  However, that is little comfort to the over 12 million who remain unemployed.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Skidelsky: Keynes, Hobson, Marx

Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky:
President Lyndon Johnson asked John Kenneth Galbraith to write him a speech on economic policy. After glancing at it LBJ said 'You know Ken, the trouble with economics is it's like peeing in your pants. It feels hot to you, but leaves everyone else cold'.
He follows that nugget with a nice essay about Keynes, J.A. Hobson and Karl Marx in light of recent economic history.  This discussion of how Keynes linked his theory of fluctuations in The General Theory to his essay on economic growth, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, was particularly interesting:
However, by 1943, he had sorted out his thoughts on the matter. He now envisaged three phases after the war. In Phase I, which he thought might last 5 years, investment demand would exceed full employment saving, leading to inflation in the absence of rationing and other controls. In this phase consumption should be restricted in order to reconstruct the war damaged industries.
 
In phase 2, which he thought might last between 5 and 10 years, he foresaw a rough equilibrium between full employment saving and private plus public investment, with the state pursuing an active investment policy.
 
In Phase 3, i.e. by about 1960, he thought that investment demand would be so saturated that it would not be able to match full employment saving without the state having to embark on wasteful and unnecessary programmes. In this phase, the aim of policy should be to encourage consumption and absorb some of the unwanted surplus of saving by increasing leisure and more frequent holidays. This would mark the entrance to the 'golden age' of capital abundance. Eventually Keynes thought that 'depreciation funds would be almost sufficient to provide all the gross investment that is required'.
On a related note, John Quiggin recently had an interesting essay on Keynes' prediction in Economic Possibilities, of much greater leisure time (Matthew Yglesias suggests it is coming true, a little bit).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Actual Politician for State-Contingent Fiscal Policy!

Matthew Yglesias points to Maine Senate candidate Angus King's views on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts:
I was in favor of ending the Bush-era tax cuts immediately, but after continued poor employment numbers, we need a more nuanced approach. We should consider pegging the sunset of these tax cuts to something non-arbitrary, like a certain amount of GDP growth, or a lower level of unemployment. This would avoid the unproductive brinkmanship that Congress engages in over this issue – and could prevent our fragile recovery from being further slowed down.
This is essentially what I suggested in June (HC op-ed, blog post).  Nice to see someone who might actually be in a position to do something having similar thoughts.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Fiscal Trigger Finger That Did Not Itch

In April, 2011, I suggested that the biggest flaw in the 2009 fiscal stimulus effort was that it wasn't "state-contingent" - i.e., that it should have been designed to automatically adjust with circumstances (which turned out to be much worse than expected when the administration first proposed the recovery act).  

That was an idea that came to my mind with the benefit of hindsight, but now Matthew Yglesias informs us that the idea of putting "triggers" in the stimulus was considered at the time.  I'd really like to know why they didn't include them - I think the US economy would be in much better shape if they had.

They - or the incoming Romney administration - may want to consider state contingent fiscal policy again when they deal with the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Richard on Gold

The inclusion of a plank supporting a commission to study a return to the gold standard in the Republican platform has prompted a number of economists to explain (again) why it is a bad idea.

In an LA Times op-ed, my Wesleyan colleague Richard Grossman writes:
History provides ample evidence that the gold standard is a bad idea. After World War I, the major industrialized nations established the gold standard, which is widely seen as having contributed to the spread and intensification of the Great Depression. The gold standard tied the hands of monetary policymakers, forcing them to maintain high interest rates in order to maintain the price of gold, thereby making a bad economic situation even worse.
See also Paul Krugman.  My version of the case against gold is in this earlier post.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dirty Mario?

From a story by the Times' Landon Thomas about ECB President Mario Draghi:
“You do not go back to the lira or the drachma or whatever,” Mr. Draghi declared at that same early-August news conference. By alluding to the former currency of his home country, Italy, and seeming to place it in the same category of woebegone Greece, Mr. Draghi — who played a crucial policy role in the euro’s creation — signaled that he was taking the bears’ skepticism personally. 

“It’s like Dirty Harry saying, ‘Make my day,”’ said Stephen Jen, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund who now manages a hedge fund based in London. “You can’t imagine Greenspan or Bernanke saying something like this,” he said, referring to the previous and current U.S. central bank chairmen, Alan Greenspan and Ben S. Bernanke. “It was very Italian and very powerful.” 

Mr. Draghi’s weapon of choice, of course, is more subtle than the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum favored by Clint Eastwood in the “Dirty Harry” movies. But from a financial markets perspective, there is no less firepower in his suggestion that the E.C.B. might buy the bonds of countries like Spain and Italy if they commit to tough measures to reduce deficits and restructure their economies. 
Of course, what made Eastwood's Inspector Callaghan "Dirty" was his willingness to break the rules.  If he really means to save the Euro,  Mario Draghi may need to show a similar disregard for legal niceties.  I'm not an expert on the ins and outs of the Maastricht treaty, so I won't take a position on whether large-scale purchases of the bonds of distressed governments by the ECB exceeds its authority (or on the related question of whether the "European Stability Mechanism" is constitutional), but some - particularly in Germany - have been making that case (see, e.g., here and here).

Some of the relevant language from the Maastricht treaty:
Article 104 1. Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the ECB or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as “national central banks”) in favour of Community institutions or bodies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the ECB or national central banks of debt instruments...

Article 104b 1. The Community shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project. A Member State shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law or public undertakings of another Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project.
If Draghi is serious about doing whatever it takes to save the Euro, he won't let that slow him down.
Critics of intervention can make appeals - perhaps with some validity - to the "rule of law," but this is a case where following the letter of the law (at least if its interpreted strictly) would lead to a real human disaster if the Euro cracked up in a crisis.

Some people found Dirty Harry's rule-breaking objectionable (Pauline Kael called it "fascist medievalism"). But John Wayne's perspective - in the context of explaining why he turned down the role - might be instructive for Draghi:
I thought Harry was a rogue cop. Put that down to narrow-mindedness because when I saw the picture I realized that Harry was the kind of part I'd played often enough: a guy who lives within the law but breaks the rules when he really has to in order to save others.
A little rule breaking is part of the tradition of central banking - as Brad DeLong explained, modern central banking came into being when the Bank of England acted outside its legal authority by assuming the role of "lender of last resort" during the panic of 1825.

Unlike Dirty Harry, whose magnum had six bullets, there will be no question of whether or not Dirty Mario has run out of firepower.  The question that remains is the extent of his willingness to use it, even if it means risking having to turn in his badge later.

Draghi probably wouldn't like the analogy, but I'd imagine its preferable to being called "Super Mario" all the time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rich and Paul

From Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile of Paul Ryan:
In 1988, Ryan went to Miami University, in Ohio, where he got to know an economics professor named William R. Hart, a fierce and outspoken libertarian in a faculty dominated by liberals. The two quickly discovered their shared fascination with Rand and Hayek. Ryan got his first introduction to movement conservatism when Hart handed him an issue of National Review. “Take this magazine—I think you’ll like it,” he said.
Rich Hart (nobody calls him "William" or "Bill") was a colleague of mine for several years when I worked at Miami.  He certainly was "outspoken" - I figured that much out on my visit to Oxford as a job candidate, when I quickly realized politics probably wasn't the safest subject. After one of his colleagues - Rich wasn't the only conservative there - described Hillary Clinton as a "communist" I changed the topic.  After getting know Rich a little better, I'm sure he wouldn't have held the fact that our political views were very different against me.  Indeed, he was always quite kind in his dealings with me and supportive of the junior faculty.

I never had a precise sense of what Rich taught in his macroeconomics class, but, while he may have reinforced the political inclinations Paul Ryan brought with him to Miami, I highly doubt he could be held responsible for Ryan's absurdly ignorant take on monetary policy:
Perhaps Ryan’s most unconventional opinion on monetary policy came in the summer of 2010, when he told Ezra Klein that the Federal Reserve should actually raise interest rates even as the U.S. economy was still struggling: “[T]here’s a lot of capital parked out there, and we need to coax it out into the markets,” he said. “I think literally that if we raised the federal funds rate by a point, it would help push money into the economy, as right now, the safest play is to stay with the federal money and federal paper.”

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Maybe America has a Greek Problem After All

I was asked recently if I was worried that the US was turning into Greece.  "I'm not worried about that at all," I said.  I gave the standard economist's explanation: the crucial difference is that the US government is borrowing in its own currency, and the primary evidence that markets aren't worried is the low yield on long-term Treasuries. 

However, reading Paul Krugman's column today about Mitt Romney's taxes, I realized that the US-Greece parallel may be valid in one unfortunate respect: both countries appear to have a serious tax-avoidance problem on the part of their elites. 

Wonkblog's Brad Plumer wrote about a study of tax evasion in Greece:
A bigger question is why Greece hasn’t been able to crack down on tax evasion. The authors note that Greek officials seem to have a very good idea of who’s avoiding taxes: In 2010, the parliament took up a bill that specifically targeted doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers and so forth. As the authors note, these are precisely the groups evading the most taxes (largely because they receive much of their income in bribes). But the crackdown bill failed — possibly because, as the authors discover, these are the professions best represented within the Greek parliament.
In the US, we have a problem of illegal tax evasion - the "tax gap" - which, while significant, may not be on the same scale as Greece's.  The bigger problem in the US is the ability - and willingness - by corporations and very high-earners to legally avoid taxes. 

Though its hard to know for sure what's going on without more information, Mitt Romney's IRA might be an example. According to Krugman:
I.R.A.’s are supposed to be a tax-advantaged vehicle for middle-class savers, with annual contributions limited to a few thousand dollars a year. Yet somehow Mr. Romney ended up with an account worth between $20 million and $101 million. 
I doubt Romney did anything illegal by the letter of the law, but the complexity of our tax system provides lots of ways for people and corporations that can muster legal and accounting firepower to minimize their taxes.  Moreover, the same people and corporations who benefit from the messiness of the tax code have disproportionate influence in Washington which may help them keep their loopholes open, and perhaps get them widened a little here and there.

The obvious policy answer is a simpler, and better-enforced tax code.  But, given the political economy, that's probably not realistic.  And focusing on the tax rules may miss the real issue, both here, and perhaps in Greece, that there is not a strong enough sense that taxes are a duty (one might even say noblesse oblige) and some attempts to avoid them - even if legal - might be wrong. 

Krugman noted that, in contrast to his son, George Romney was notably transparent about his finances:
Those returns also reveal that he paid a lot of taxes — 36 percent of his income in 1960, 37 percent over the whole period. This was in part because, as one report at the time put it, he “seldom took advantage of loopholes to escape his tax obligations.” 
There probably always have been and will be "loopholes", but what matters is the willingness to take advantage of them.  That depends, in part, on how socially acceptable it is to do so.  While the details are different (and the macroeconomics is very different), the US and Greece seem to share a significant failing in the "social norms" department.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Trigger for the "Fiscal Cliff"

Under current law, taxes will rise significantly and government spending will be cut next year.  This scenario has been called the "fiscal cliff" and the CBO recently estimated it would lead to a recession in early 2013.

In the Hartford Courant, I suggest going over it, but gradually, when the circumstances are more favorable:
The tax increases could be made to occur at a more appropriate time by instituting triggering criteria that would delay them until the state of the economy has improved and then phase them in. For example, the tax changes could be set to begin once the unemployment rate has fallen to a more reasonable level, like 5.5 percent, and remained there for six months. At that point, the increases could occur in three or four steps, with each one occurring as long as the unemployment rate has remained below a specified level for six months.

This would minimize the risk of pushing the economy back into recession by waiting until the economy has recovered enough to bring the unemployment rate down to a level more consistent with a healthy economy. It would also create confidence that the U.S. is not headed for a debt crisis (though low interest rates suggest that financial markets are not worried about this now). An automatic trigger would take the guesswork out of deciding on an appropriate time frame for an extension of the tax cuts, and spare the country further political brinksmanship over renewing them again.
This is another form of "state contingent" fiscal policy that I've suggested previously on this blog.

In the piece, I asserted that allowing the 2001/03 income tax cuts and the 2010 temporary payroll tax cuts to expire would generate revenue "roughly consistent with the amount of spending required to maintain current programs." This is based on the idea that this would be pretty close to the "extended baseline scenario" in the CBO's projections where the US debt-to-GDP ratio gradually declines over time.  As Jared Bernstein notes, the implication is that the US can afford its current entitlement programs, if it allows scheduled tax increases to take place.

In addition to the tax increases - essentially a reversion to the tax code at the end of the Clinton administration (we did pretty ok back then, didn't we?) - the "fiscal cliff" scenario also involves some spending cuts under the "sequester" mandated by last summer's debt ceiling deal.  Since I was trying to keep the piece to op-ed length, I focused on the tax part because it is larger, but similar logic could be applied to the spending aspects.

The argument is not that this is an ideal economic policy - I'd like to see more stimulus now, and a simpler, more progressive tax code in the long-run; others would like cuts to entitlement programs and lower taxes - but rather that, as a modest change to existing law, it might be a politically feasible alternative to unrealistic hopes of a fiscal "grand bargain" that can achieve a "not bad" outcome in the short- and long-run.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hans-Werner Sinn is for Hanging Separately. Is Germany?

In a NY Times op-ed attempting to explain "Why Berlin is Balking on a Bailout" Hans-Werner Sinn writes:
Even a European nation, however, should not socialize debt, a lesson demonstrated by the United States in the 19th century. 

When Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton socialized the states’ war debt after the Revolutionary War, he raised the expectation of further debt socialization in the future, which induced the states to over-borrow. This resulted in political tensions in the early 19th century that severely threatened the stability of the young nation. 
Wow.  

Every American schoolkid learns that Ben Franklin said "we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." The point is that the we succeeded by hanging together.  Sinn somehow manages to draw the opposite lesson.  Wow.

The more widely-held (until today, I would have said "universally") view is that Hamilton's plans - which faced a great deal of opposition at the time - helped establish the creditworthiness of the United States and provided a foundation for its financial and economic development. Bob Wright and David Cowen, in Financial Founding Fathers explain:
The positive effects of funding and assumption of the debt upon not only the country's credit standing but also its commerce were felt almost immediately. Writing from Hartford in 1791, Noah Webster, the "schoolmaster of America," boasted about the era of prosperity brought on by assumption. "The establishment of funds to maintain public credit," he noted, "has an amazing effect upon the face of business and the country." "Commerce," he continued, "revives and the country is full of provision. Manufactures are increasing to a great degree, and in the large towns vast improvements are making in pavements and buildings."

Moreover, Europe's capital markets magically opened to the United States. As early as March 1791, United States securities were selling from 1 to 40 percent above par in Europe. In November 1791, European-based broker John Fry assured Hamilton that American credit overseas was secure and that European funds would stabilize securities prices. "The American Funds," Fry claimed, "had inspired no Confidence in this market 'til they had acquired a high price at home & three months ago a sale of them must have been effected here with the greatest difficulty." "The Case is now so materially alter'd," he wrote, "that one friend of mine has bought & sold near a Million of Dollars." Fry noted that Europeans at that time had more money than local investment opportunities and were looking to employ their capital in the United States. In short, Americans were able to borrow money in Europe at between 3 and 6 percent and use it to fund projects that returned 10, 15, even 20 percent per year. 
That is, Hamilton's plan for the national debt mostly worked out pretty well and is a good example of something that was controversial at the time but vindicated by history.

I really hope Sinn's view isn't representative of German opinion.  If it is, we're in way more trouble than I realized.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Economic Pessimism in Historical Perspective

US industrial production (log scale), 1790-2011:
From Davis, QJE 2004 (1790-1915); Miron and Romer, JEH 1990 (1916-1918); Federal Reserve, 1919-2011.

J.M. Keynes (Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, 1930):
The prevailing world depression, the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants, the disastrous mistakes we have made, blind us to what is going on under the surface - to the true interpretation of things.  For I predict that both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our own time - the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of the reactionaries who consider the balance of our economic and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiments.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Subordination of Economic Theory to Society

At Project Syndicate, Schlomo Ben-Ami writes:
Europe, however, has always found it difficult to come to terms with an over-confident, let alone arrogant, Germany. The current political turmoil in Europe shows that, regardless of how sensible Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity prescriptions for debt-ridden peripheral Europe might be in the abstract, they resemble a German Diktat. The concern for many is not just Europe’s historic “German problem,” but also that Germany could end up exporting to the rest of Europe the same ghosts of radical politics and violent nationalism that its economic success has transcended at home.

Once the crisis became a sad daily reality for millions of unemployed – particularly for what appears to be a lost generation of young, jobless Europeans – EU institutions also became a target of popular rage. Their inadequacies – embodied in a cumbersome system of governance, and in endless, inconclusive summitry – and their lack of democratic legitimacy are being repudiated by millions of voters throughout the continent.

Europe’s experience has shown that the subordination of society to economic theories is politically untenable. Social vulnerability and frustration at the political system’s failure to provide solutions are the grounds upon which radical movements have always emerged to offer facile solutions.
If "economic theories" is taken to mean the theories of economists, the "subordination of society to economic theories" is not the problem in Europe right now.

The euro project was driven by politicians and businessmen - not economists - from the outset.  In terms of economic theory, giving up autonomous monetary policy is highly problematic, especially in the absence of fiscal union and when labor mobility is limited. 

Moreover, according to economic theory, the "austerity prescriptions" are anything but "sensible."   Economic theory says that these policies are pro-cyclical (i.e., exacerbate the current economic slump) and that the adjustment of economic imbalances through "internal devaluation" is extremely painful.

The underlying motives for the push for austerity in Europe are largely political.  I cannot claim to have any insight about domestic politics in Germany, but the last several years in the United States have demonstrated that interventions grounded in basic economic ideas - counter-cyclical fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy, and "lender of last resort" financial interventions - can be deeply unpopular.  Even though these policies can deliver what appears to be a (nearly) "free lunch," they are profoundly unappealing to the instinct and intuition of voters.  What the voters ("society") seem to want are economic policies that reward virtue and punish profligacy (last year, Stephen Gordon nicely observed a parallel between German attitudes and the US "Tea Party").

Economists and our theories are far from perfect, but the problem in Europe is not economic theories, or at least it isn't the economic theories of economists.  Europe would be doing much better right now if it was subordinated to economic theory (not the same thing as "technocrats").   The problem is that voters have their own economic theories, grounded in their perceptions of fairness and virtue, and these stand in the way of resolving the crisis.  That is, Ben-Ami has it exactly backward: what is underlying the European crisis is the subordination of economic theories to society.

Update:  Empirical evidence, tweeted by the Economist's Greg Ip:
Apparently many voters mistrust IS-LM. YouGov Economist poll: How stimulate econ? 47%=>gov't infrastructure spending; 46%=> reduce deficit.
And related thoughts in Paul Krugman's blog.

Friday, June 1, 2012

May Employment

The headline numbers from the BLS' May employment report are disappointing.  Employment only rose by 69,000, which is short of the rate needed to keep pace with population growth and technological progress, and the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2%.
For reactions, see the Times' David Leonhardt, Free Exchange's Ryan Avent, Mark Thoma and Calculated Risk.

Although the payroll employment number rightly gets higher billing because it comes from a survey of businesses which has a larger sample, its worth noting that the numbers from the survey of households were a bit more encouraging.  According to the household survey, 422,000 more people were employed in May than April, and the reason the unemployment rate rose is that there was an even bigger increase in the labor force, partly reversing the decline in labor force participation. 

On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the unemployment rate in May was 7.9%, up from 7.7% in April, and employment rose by 789,000.  That is, May is normally a month with big jumps in both employment and the labor force, which are removed by the seasonal adjustment.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Flo Doesn't Know the Lucas Critique

In the March issue of Automobile magazine, Ezra Dyer recounted his experience with Progressive insurance's "snapshot" system, the latest innovation in trading privacy for money (which we all seem pretty well inured to these days).  Customers who sign up for snapshot receive discounts for "safe driving," which is measured with a device that transmits data to Progressive from your car using the cell network.

Dyer explains:
According to the rules, Snapshot can generate a discount but not a surcharge -- unless you live in Rhode Island. The device logs your speed, but that's not a factor in the calculations because Progressive doesn't know where you are -- you might be doing 65 mph in a 70 zone or 45 mph through a car wash (although one wonders if a few trips into the triple digits would disqualify you from a safe-driver discount). The deciding factors are what time of day you drive, how far you drive, and how forcefully you brake.
The reason for the braking criteria is that "gentle braking apparently correlates to low insurance claims".  Anyone familiar with the Lucas critique will spot the problem with this, as Dyer does: 
If you're approaching a yellow light, Snapshot is an incentive to risk running the red rather than hitting the brakes. If a deer jumps out in front of you, Snapshot would prefer that you swerve into the oncoming lane rather than mash that brake pedal.
That is, the past relationship between braking behavior and driving safety reflects the behavior of agents under one set of incentives - if you change their incentives, their behavior will change, and the previous relationship between braking and safe driving will no longer be valid.

What Progressive really needs is a "structural" model that embodies the underlying preferences of their customers, which will be invariant to the policy change.  Of course that's a much harder thing to do (as macroecomists have discovered over the past several decades...).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Employment: April is Meh

According to today's report from the BLS, employment rose by 115,000 in April and the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1%.

Nonfarm Payroll Employment (BLS; Seasonally Adj.)
The employment figure comes from a survey of businesses and is roughly consistent with a pace of job growth needed to keep the unemployment rate steady over time, but not nearly fast enough to bring it down.

Unemployment Rate (BLS; Seasonally Adj.)
The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of households.  Unfortunately, the reason for the decrease isn't gains in employment, but rather a decrease in he labor force (the number of people who are working or looking for work, which is the denominator in the unemployment rate calculation).  In the household survey, the number of people reporting that they were working decreased by 169,000, while the labor force shrank by 342,000.  That brings the employment-population ratio down to 58.4 and the labor force participation rate is now 63.6.

Employment-Population Ratio (BLS; Seasonally Adj.)
The improvement in the unemployment rate over the past year (it was 9% in April, 2011) is due to the fact that the labor force has grown slowly relative to the population. Compared to a year ago, the "civilian noninstitutional" population (over 16) is 3.6 million higher, while the labor force has only grown by 0.95 million.  The number employed has increased by 2.2 million.  The employment-population ratio is the same as it was a year ago.  The declining labor force participation is probably a combination of demographic factors and discouragement.

April is a month with a large seasonal adjustment, and the month when the adjustment switches from positive to negative.  On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the unemployment rate fell from 8.4% to 7.7%, the employment-population ratio rose from 63.7 to 64.1, and employment grew by 896,000.  That is, comparing the adjusted and non-adjusted numbers tells us that April is always a month with big employment gains, but this month's weren't impressive relative to that pattern.  There has been some discussion about whether the seasonal adjustment is slightly off, partly because of the warmer than usual weather this winter, which would mean that some of the hiring that normally might occur in the spring could have happened earlier.

The February and March payroll employment figures were revised upward a bit, by 19,000 and 24,000 respectively.

Overall, this report is consistent with the picture we've had from most of the data releases over the past year of an economy that is growing, but not quickly enough to make up for the ground lost in the 2008-09 recession - i.e., to close the "output gap."  12.5 million people remain unemployed.

Update: More reaction from Brad Plumer, Greg Ip, Floyd Norris, Mark Thoma, Calculated Risk, and the econ "twitterverse".

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fed District 1 Rolls Up Its Sleeves

If the FOMC won't do enough on unemployment, the Boston Fed says "we'll do it ourselves, the hard way - one job at a time":

Tweet of the Day

Q1 GDP

The BEA's advance estimate puts real GDP growth at 2.2% for the first quarter.  That's down a bit from 3.0% in the last quarter of 2011, but overall its consistent with the picture over the last two years of an economy that is growing, but not quickly enough to make up the lost ground from the severe recession in 2008-09.

For the US economy, growth in the 2-3% range is consistent with stable unemployment. If the unemployment rate was 5%, this report would have been fine, but since the unemployment rate is still above 8%, its quite disappointing.

The blue line is real GDP and the red line is the employment-population ratio (part of the dip might be due to demographics).

Things looked better on the consumer side - durable goods purchases rose at a 15.3% rate.  But businesses are still holding back on investment - equipment and software investment rose at a weak 1.7% pace.  Investment in housing is finally growing a little bit, but from a very low base.  This chart shows three sub-components of investment as shares of GDP since 1970 - equipment and software (blue), residential housing (orange) and nonresidential structures (green).
Government was a drag, again; absent the decline in government purchases, growth would have been 2.8%.  While austerity is pushing European economies back into recession, semi-austerity here is holding back the US recovery.  In this particular quarter, most of the dip in government purchases was due to defense, so it may partly reflect quirks of the timing of exactly when the Pentagon spends its money.

The inflation rate, measured by the GDP deflator, was 1.5%.  However the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) deflator rose at a 2.4% rate and core (excluding food and energy) PCE inflation was 2.1%.  Given the apparent emphasis by the Fed on keeping PCE inflation below 2%, that doesn't give them room to maneuver - i.e., it makes it even tougher for the "doves" on the FOMC, alas.

More reactions: Ryan Avent, Brad PlumerPaul Krugman.

Update: More from Calculated Risk, Jim Hamilton, and me, in a story by Kevin Hall of McClatchy Newspapers:
“Given corporate profits, you might have hoped for more investment growth,” Craighead said. The economy continues to “hit the snooze button. … It’s acceptable growth in the normal economy, but given how many people are unemployed it is disappointing.”

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/04/27/146970/us-economy-slows-to-22-percent.html#storylink=cpy

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Who Bails Out the IMF?

Us, says Simon Johnson:
Over the weekend, the monetary fund became a lot more leveraged — that is, its debt increased relative to its equity. The potential future liability to American taxpayers went up, because the risk of large credit losses increased, and those losses would need to be covered by shareholders (and the American stake in the fund is 17.69 percent of quota, with 16.8 percent of the votes).

There is also an implicit guarantee — arguably without limit — from the United States to the monetary fund. The United States set up the world trading system after World War II, and has a huge amount to lose if it fails. It also has deep pockets, compared with almost all other countries.

Therefore, unlike those at a typical corporation, the shareholders in the International Monetary Fund do not have limited liability, so we should care a great deal about the downside risks. The Europeans are currently increasing those risks — by lending to the fund and planning to use fund loans as part of future bailouts.
It hadn't occurred to me to worry about that.  Darn those "implicit guarantees"...

But this one seems very different from the implicit guarantees of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and "too big to fail" financial institutions that have made so much trouble.  When a government "bails out" a financial institution, it is really bailing out the financial institution's creditors.   Often those creditors are other financial institutions (who might be their counterparties on various transactions), or creditors of other financial institutions (e.g. a money market mutual fund that buys bank debt), so the government feels the need to rescue them because of a broader concern about "systemic risk" to the entire financial system.

The IMF's creditors, on the other hand, are governments.  If the IMF were to become insolvent, it would be a diplomatic issue, since governments would stand to lose money, but I'm not sure it would be such a problem for the world financial system.  How much - beyond the money the US has put into it - the US would have to lose if the IMF fails is not immediately obvious to me.  While a failure wouldn't spark an immediate financial crisis in the conventional way (though no doubt everyone would be pretty spooked!), how much worse off one thinks the world would be without the IMF depends on how much good you believe the IMF does.  And that is something people can (and do) debate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Central Bank Firepower

Bundesbank's Jens Weidmann (via Bloomberg):
"Monetary policy is not a panacea and central bank firepower is not unlimited, especially not in a monetary union,” he said. “We can only win back confidence if we bring down excessive deficits and boost competitiveness. And it is precisely because these things are unpopular that makes it so tempting for politicians to rely instead on monetary accommodation."
As a factual matter, Weidmann is just plain wrong (and I think he knows it - perhaps this was just a poor word choice on his part).  In a fiat money system the central bank's firepower - its ability to create money - is unlimited.  There are good reasons why central banks choose to exercise restraint, but it is a policy choice.  In the case of Europe today, the ECB could create money to buy government bonds.  A mere expression of willingness to use its "firepower" this way could significantly bring ease the pressure on bond spreads.

The objections to this are twofold: (i) it creates "moral hazard" by allowing governments to escape the consequences of their own fiscal policies (though as Krugman and others have pointed out, the standard narrative about profligate peripheral governments is not really accurate) and (ii) money creation could lead to inflation.  Some of us think a little more inflation in Europe would actually be quite helpful, but others - particularly in Germany due to the memory of hyperinflation in the 1920s - are quite averse to it, and modern central bankers worry alot about maintaining the "credibility" of low inflation expectations.

In any case, the ECB has the firepower, its just choosing not to use it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Transparency Versus Clarity at the Fed

In the Times, a nice story by Binyamin Appelbaum about how confusion and uncertainty about monetary policy persists, despite the Fed's moves towards greater transparency, such as publishing forecasts and holding press conferences (remember: before 1994, the Fed didn't even announce changes in the Fed Funds rate target).
Experts and investors have continued to disagree about the plain meaning of the Fed’s recent policy statements. Some say the increased volume of communication is creating cacophony rather than clarity. Political criticism of the Fed has continued unabated.
I'm not sure the uncertainty regarding the Fed's intentions should be considered a failure of communication.  This is an unusual time for monetary policy, with the financial crisis and "zero lower bound" forcing the Fed to experiment with different policy tools.  To the extent that the Fed's signals are unclear, I suspect that reflects genuine uncertainty within the Fed.

There is also significant degree of genuine disagreement among the members of the FOMC.  While Bernanke's tolerance for expressions of divergent views may enable "cacophony," in forming expectations about future policy it is quite useful to have a sense of the individual members' opinions since decisions will ultimately be made by a committee.

Just like monetary policy itself, the Fed's communication policy should be evaluated relative to a counterfactual (i.e., what would have happened without it).  While we may have a hard time predicting the course of monetary policy now, I think the outside world would be in a state of much deeper confusion if all of the unconventional monetary policy moves over the past several years had been conducted under the older tradition of secretiveness at the Fed.

Friday, April 6, 2012

March Employment: Mediocre Friday

The March employment report from the BLS was not a very strong one.  The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.2% (from 8.3% in Feb.)

Unemployment Rate (Seasonally Adj., Source: BLS)

However, that was attributable to a decline in labor force participation, not job growth.  The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of households, and to be counted as unemployed someone must say that they are looking for work, so if people stop looking (i.e., they leave the labor force) that reduces the unemployment rate.  In the household survey, the number of people reporting that they were employed actually decreased slightly (by 33,000), but the number of people in the labor force (i.e., working or looking for work) fell by 164,000.

Labor Force Participation Rate (Seasonally Adj.; Source: BLS)

The headline jobs number - nonfarm payroll employment - comes from a survey of businesses (it is considered more reliable because of a larger sample).  That figure was a little better, but still unimpressive - a gain of 120,000 jobs, which is roughly consistent with a pace needed to keep up with population growth, but far short of enough to make a dent in unemployment.

Nonfarm Payroll Employment (Thousands, Seasonally Adj.; Source: BLS)

This report was a bit weaker than the past several months.  Some have argued that the unusually warm weather in the winter may have provided a boost to hiring in those months, and if employers were bringing forward some of their hiring, it would also mean slightly less hiring than usual in the spring.  This would mean the BLS' seasonal adjustment is slightly off.  On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, nonfarm payrolls increased by 811,000 (but that's mostly due to the normal increase in this time of year so nothing to get excited about), and the unemployment rate rate fell from 8.7% to 8.4%.

Overall, this remains consistent with the view of an economy in a very slow recovery.  Unemployment is still extremely high; about 12.7 million people are unemployed and many more are "discouraged workers" who have left the labor force or underemployed ("part time for economic reasons").  The BLS' broader measure that includes these people, "U-6," stands at 14.5%, which is down quite a bit from its peak, but still very high. 

While the stronger reports over the past several months may have created a sense that the economy was picking up steam on its own, the March report may be a useful reminder that it could still use a push from policymakers.  According Tim Duy's and Gavyn Davies' readings of the most recent Fed minutes, they appear inclined to hold off on further expansionary policy measures.  Hopefully they will take today's report as an indication that such complacency is unwarranted (and Paul Krugman's critique of the Fed in his column today is timely).

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hooray for the Income Approach!?

The total value of a country's economic activity in a given time period - its Gross Domestic Product - can be calculated in a number of ways.  The most common is the "expenditure" approach, which involves adding up the purchases of new final goods and services ('new' to avoid wrongly counting re-sales of previously produced goods and 'final' to avoid double-counting input goods, like the glass in a car).  These purchases fall into three broad categories, consumption (C), government purchases (G) and investment (I).  Adding those up and accounting for net exports (NX; exports - imports) gives the familiar relation GDP = C+I+G+NX.

When I teach macroeconomics, I also go over the "income" approach, which calculates GDP based on all the incomes generated for the people who supply the resources used to produce goods and services (the "factors of production", primarily capital and labor).  I don't think the students particularly like this part of the class (and many instructors skip it), because its a bit trickier to do it that way.  I persist with it because I believe there's a valuable point, which is to show how income comes from the act of producing stuff, and to show how that income is distributed among the suppliers of various factors.

There may be another reason why its valuable - some have argued that income-based measures are more accurate in the short run (in principle, they should be the same, but, in practice the data is reported with a "statistical discrepancy" to reconcile them).  Moreover, the latest BEA release suggests that GDP growth is looking somewhat less anemic by the income approach.  Binyamin Applebaum at Economix explains:
There is a pleasant surprise in the latest batch of economic data released Thursday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Buried deep inside the government’s revised estimate of fourth-quarter growth (revised but unchanged at 3 percent annualized) is an alternate measure of economic activity that is winning increased attention. And by that alternate measure, gross domestic income, the annualized pace of growth in the final three months of 2011 actually climbed to 4.4 percent.

That’s the kind of growth we usually see during an economic recovery, the kind of growth that’s fast enough to create new jobs. Indeed, it suggests that we may have learned the answer to a fretful mystery. Until now, economists have struggled to explain why unemployment was falling so fast when the major measure of growth, gross domestic product, was rising at an exceedingly modest pace.
Appelbaum explained more in this article last year.  See also: Calculated Risk. However, Dean Baker disputes

Comparative Labor Laws Fact of the Day

The NY Times' Keith Bradhser reports:
When China imposed its current laws limiting overtime four years ago, the regulations set off considerable complaints from workers and companies alike. There is a limit of three hours a day of overtime and six days of work a week. 

“The law is very restrictive about what it allows,” a foreign businessman in southeastern China said Friday. He insisted on anonymity lest his comments be construed as criticism of the government or of labor advocates. Labor laws in the United States are actually less restrictive, in some ways, in allowing workers to put in even longer hours than in China. Generally speaking, as long as American workers receive time and a half pay for anything over 40 hours a week, there are no limits on total hours. 

China officially bans workers and factories from arranging longer hours even by mutual consent, for fear that employers will put inappropriate pressure on workers to put in extremely long hours. 
So, how long before we see Chinese activists boycotting goods made under "inhumane" working conditions in America??

Friday, March 30, 2012

Rebalancing Watch, China Edition

We'll be discussing the US-China trade imbalance in Econ 270 next week.  This played a prominent role in worries about "global imbalances" that were prevalent several years ago.  The concerns linger, but both the US current account deficit and China's surplus have come down significantly over the past several years. 

I discussed the US current account in a recent post.  China recently reported a trade deficit (!).  That was a bit of a fluke, according to The Economist:
China’s trade balance often dips around Chinese New Year, as export factories close for the festival. The holiday also arrived earlier this year than last, distorting the data. But even if the figures for January and February are added together, China ran a deficit of over $4 billion. Exports and imports typically rebound in sync as China gets back to work. This year, imports rebounded alone.
But the broader trend is for a significantly sinking surplus. Jeff Frankel attributes this to real appreciation:
[T]he yuan was finally allowed to appreciate against the dollar during 2005-08 and 2010-11, by 25% cumulatively [=17% + 8%]. Second, and more importantly, labor shortages began to appear and Chinese workers at last began to win rapid wage increases. Major cities raised their minimum wages sharply over each of the last three years [FT, Jan. 5]: 22% on average in 2010 and 2011 (somewhat less this year, in response to slowing demand: 8.6 % in Beijing, 13% in Shenzhen and Shanghai). Meanwhile another cost of business, land prices, rose even more rapidly.

As a result, whereas all signs still pointed to a substantially undervalued yuan as recently as four or five years ago, this is no longer the case. One important measure of undervaluation — a comparison of China’s prices with what is normal given the country’s level of income (the so-called Balassa-Samuelson relationship) — showed the renminbi as undervalued against the dollar by as much as 36% on 2000 data (Frankel, 2005) . Even after an improvement in the international price data, Balassa-Samuelson regressions estimated the undervaluation at roughly 30% in 2005 and 25% as recently as 2009. (Others had other ways of estimating undervaluation; see Goldstein, 2004, and those surveyed by Cline and Williamson, 2008.)

The renminbi’s real appreciation against the dollar over the last three years has amounted to 12%, reducing the degree of undervaluation by roughly half, depending on whether one measures it against the dollar or against all countries. More is to be expected, as Chinese relative wages continue to rise. In any case, China’s real exchange rate is already closer to this measure of equilibrium than are most countries’ exchange rates (Cheung, Chinn and Fuji, 2010).
However, Michael Pettis argues that China is trading external imbalances for internal ones (and trouble down the road...):
So is China rebalancing?  Of course not.  Rebalancing would require that the domestic consumption share of GDP rise.  Is the consumption share of GDP rising?  Clearly not.  If consumption had increased its share of GDP since the onset of the crisis, the savings share of GDP would be declining.

And yet savings continue to rise.  This is the opposite of rebalancing, and it should not come as a surprise.  Beijing is trying to increase the consumption share of GDP by subsidizing certain types of household consumption (white goods, cars), but since the subsidies are paid for indirectly by the household sector, the net effect is to take away with one hand what it offers with the other.  This is no way to increase consumption.

Meanwhile investment continues to grow and, with it, debt continues to grow, and since the only way to manage all this debt is to continue repressing interest rates at the expense of household depositors, households have to increase their savings rates to make up the difference.  So national savings continue to rise.
That sounds like trouble, though this Economist article noted that there are some reasons to believe that estimates of Chinese consumption might be understated:
China’s official statistics show private consumption growing less quickly than the economy as a whole from 2001 to 2010. But they also show retail sales growing faster than GDP from 2008 to 2010. The discrepancy is partly because China’s retail-sales figures include some things they should not (such as government purchases and sales of chemicals and other wholesale goods), and miss out other things (like health care and other services), that are a big part of consumer spending. But several economists also believe the official figures understate private consumption.

To derive an alternative measure, Yiping Huang and his colleagues at Barclays Capital, an investment bank, have tried to pick out those retail sales that are likely to reflect consumer purchases. He has combined those purchases with sales figures for service firms. By this alternative measure, consumption fell as a share of GDP until 2008, but started growing strongly thereafter. “Rebalancing of the Chinese economy has already started,” the Barclays economists conclude.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No, Greg Mankiw, We're Not, and You Know It

On his blog, Greg Mankiw provides his readers a rather deceptive bit of information:
The reason that is misleading is explained further down in the very same yahoo finance article he links to:
But despite the headline number, the statutory rate only tells part of the story.

Loopholes and other special treatment for different kinds of businesses mean that businesses pay an effective rate of only 29.2% of their income, which puts the United States below the average of 31.9% among other major economies, according to analysis by the Treasury Department.

And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the multinational group that tracks global economic growth, estimates the United States collects less corporate tax relative to the overall economy than almost any other country in the world.
I know Greg Mankiw knows that.  The headline marginal tax rates do matter, because they effect incentives, but his selective quote creates the false impression that the US corporations face an unusually large tax burden, when, by many measures, the effective corporate tax rate in the US is relatively low.

Here's another way to slice it - the share of corporate "operating surplus" paid in taxes - calculated by the US Treasury, via this CBPP report:
Yes, that's a few years old and many countries have been lowering corporate taxes, but I doubt its changed that much.  Corporate taxes are indeed a mess, though, and tricky to measure; this NY Times story is informative about some of the issues.

I'm a fan of much of Greg Mankiw's work and responsible for quite a few sales of his Intermediate Macroeconomics textbook.  I know he knows better - and would probably do an excellent job if he attempted an honest explanation of the issues associated with the US corporate tax code, and how it compares internationally.  Sigh.