Friday, March 29, 2013

The Great (Income) Depression

Catherine Rampell @ NYT's Economix:
February’s median annual household income was 5.6 percent lower than it was in June 2009, the month the recovery technically began; 7.3 percent lower than in December 2007, when the most recent recession officially started; and 8.4 percent lower than in January 2000, the earliest date that this statistical series became available...

Source: Sentier Research analysis of Labor Department data. Note that vertical axis does not start at zero to better show the change. 
Source: Sentier Research analysis of Labor Department data. Note that vertical axis does not start at zero to better show the change...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Corporate Profits Soar As Unemployment Persists

Lawrence Mishel @ Economic Policy Institute:
Newly released data on corporate profitability for 2012 show the continuation of historic levels of profitability despite excessive unemployment and stagnant wages for most workers. Specifically, the share of capital income (such as profits and interest, which are hereafter referred to as ‘profits’) in the corporate sector increased to 25.6 percent in 2012, the highest in any year since 1950-1951 and far higher than the 19.9 percent share prevailing over 1969-2007, the five business cycles preceding the financial crisis.

Monday, March 25, 2013

""Hot Money Blues"

Paul Krugman wonders whether the era of unrestricted movement of global capital - which contributed to a financial crisis that hasn't ended - is beginning to fade:
Whatever the final outcome in the Cyprus crisis — we know it’s going to be ugly; we just don’t know exactly what form the ugliness will take — one thing seems certain: for the time being, and probably for years to come, the island nation will have to maintain fairly draconian controls on the movement of capital in and out of the country. In fact, controls may well be in place by the time you read this. And that’s not all: Depending on exactly how this plays out, Cypriot capital controls may well have the blessing of the International Monetary Fund, which has already supported such controls in Iceland.

That’s quite a remarkable development. It will mark the end of an era for Cyprus, which has in effect spent the past decade advertising itself as a place where wealthy individuals who want to avoid taxes and scrutiny can safely park their money, no questions asked. But it may also mark at least the beginning of the end for something much bigger: the era when unrestricted movement of capital was taken as a desirable norm around the world.

It wasn’t always thus. In the first couple of decades after World War II, limits on cross-border money flows were widely considered good policy; they were more or less universal in poorer nations, and present in a majority of richer countries too. Britain, for example, limited overseas investments by its residents until 1979; other advanced countries maintained restrictions into the 1980s. Even the United States briefly limited capital outflows during the 1960s. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is a Medicare Cost Slowdown Closing the Budget Gap?

Peter Orzag, former White House budget analyst, points @ Bloomberg to a possible breakthrough in health care costs that could dramatically impact the debate over deficits - at least that part of the debate which is based on honest, informed analysis (which often appears, at least among our elites, to be the terrain amidst this brouhaha that is the smallest and least often heard):
Past Increases in Health Care Costs
New evidence that the slowdown in health care costs over the past five years is happening not only because of a weak economy comes from the Economic Report of the President, released last week by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. If the slowdown were to continue in the future, the report shows, Medicare spending would basically remain flat as a share of the economy.
Nevertheless, new data suggest Medicare spending growth may be picking up a bit. So it’s important to take more aggressive action to improve value in health care.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"America's Latest Phony Fiscal Crisis"

Former chief economist for the IMF, Simon Johnson @ Bloomberg:
In most countries that experience a fiscal crisis, there is no ambiguity about the situation. 
The government is unable to sell debt at a reasonable interest rate. This probably coincides with a broader shift out of domestic assets, as smart investors read the writing on the wall or in the newspapers. The currency collapses and, often, inflation accelerates. The government is forced to slash spending and, cap in hand, asks for help from the world’s least popular ambulance service: the International Monetary Fund.
British burn White House - War of 1812
No part of this description fits the modern U.S. Rates on government debt are very low, the currency isn’t depreciating rapidly and inflation seems stable. There is no imaginable circumstance under which the U.S. would need to borrow from the IMF. Yet this great land of innovation has undeniably invented its unique kind of fiscal crisis.

Or, to be more precise, we have reinvented the uniquely American way of ruining our fiscal affairs. At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with the idea that debt was bad and that the U.S.’s obligations -- inherited mostly from the War of Independence -- must be eliminated at all costs. (Jefferson himself had had some bad personal experiences with debt.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Who's Booming?

With a nod toward a nominal stock market rebound to what it hit 6 years ago (if you don't adjust for inflation) - from Economic Policy Institute we have a breakdown of who owns personal shares of the stock market and is benefiting from this "boom" :

Patriot Games

Think Progress:
Even as American corporations are raking in record profits, the largest among them are shifting larger amounts of money away from the United States and into offshore tax havens that allow them to pad their bottom lines even more, according to multiple analyses of legal filings made since the beginning of 2013.

The Wall Street Journal found that the 60 largest companies moved $166 billion offshore in 2012, shielding 40 percent of their earnings from American taxes and costing the U.S. billions in lost revenue:
The amount of money at stake is significant, particularly when the U.S. budget deficit is high on the political agenda. Just 19 of the 60 companies in the Journal’s survey disclose the tax hit they could face if they brought the money back to their U.S. parent. Those companies say they might have to pay $98 billion in additional tax—more than the $85 billion in automatic-spending cuts triggered this month after the White House and Congress couldn’t agree on an alternative.

"We do not, repeat do not, face any kind of deficit crisis either now or for years to come"

More from Professor Krugman @ NYTs:
People still talk as if the deficit were exploding, as if the United States budget were on an unsustainable path; in fact, the deficit is falling more rapidly than it has for generations, it is already down to sustainable levels, and it is too small given the state of the economy.

Start with the raw numbers. America’s budget deficit soared after the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that went with it, as revenue plunged and spending on unemployment benefits and other safety-net programs rose. And this rise in the deficit was a good thing! 

Federal spending helped sustain the economy at a time when the private sector was in panicked retreat; arguably, the stabilizing role of a large government was the main reason the Great Recession didn’t turn into a full replay of the Great Depression. 

But after peaking in 2009 at $1.4 trillion, the deficit began coming down. The Congressional Budget Office expects the deficit for fiscal 2013 (which began in October and is almost half over) to be $845 billion. That may still sound like a big number, but given the state of the economy it really isn’t. 

Bear in mind that the budget doesn’t have to be balanced to put us on a fiscally sustainable path; all we need is a deficit small enough that debt grows more slowly than the economy. To take the classic example, America never did pay off the debt from World War II — in fact, our debt doubled in the 30 years that followed the war. But debt as a percentage of G.D.P. fell by three-quarters over the same period. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Krugman v. "The World"...again

The Professor explains - @ NYTs - why our "smart people" - who among other things claim to listen to "the market" as arbiter of their reality - pretty much don't have a clue about much of anything other than their recycled insider-elite ideology:
Four years ago, as a newly elected president began his efforts to rescue the economy and strengthen the social safety net, conservative economic pundits — people who claimed to understand markets and know how to satisfy them — warned of imminent financial disaster. Stocks, they declared, would plunge, while interest rates would soar.

Even a casual trawl through the headlines of the time turns up one dire pronouncement after another. “Obama’s radicalism is killing the Dow,” warned an op-ed article by Michael Boskin, an economic adviser to both Presidents Bush. “The disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers return,” declared The Wall Street Journal, warning that the “bond vigilantes” would soon push Treasury yields to destructive heights. 

Sure enough, this week the Dow Jones industrial average has been hitting all-time highs, while the current yield on 10-year U.S. government bonds is roughly half what it was when The Journal published that screed. 

O.K., everyone makes a bad prediction now and then. But these predictions have special significance, and not just because the people who made them have had such a remarkable track record of error these past several years. 

No, the important point about these particular bad predictions is that they came from people who constantly invoke the potential wrath of the markets as a reason we must follow their policy advice. Don’t try to cover America’s uninsured, they told us; if you do, you will undermine business confidence and the stock market will tank.
Don’t try to reform Wall Street, or even criticize its abuses; you’ll hurt the plutocrats’ feelings, and that will lead to plunging markets. Don’t try to fight unemployment with higher government spending; if you do, interest rates will skyrocket. 

And, of course, do slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid right away, or the markets will punish you for your presumption. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

(Long Past) Time for a financial transaction tax

Katrina vanden Heuvel @ WaPo:
(A)fter years of Wall Street excess, and at a moment when new revenues are badly needed, the time has surely come for a financial transaction tax .

Indeed, support for such a tax has never been stronger — or broader. Many on the progressive left have long favored it . Now, though, another group of bleeding-heart liberals, otherwise known as the American people, is on board. When it comes to cutting the deficit, 6 in 10 Americans prefer taxing the financial industry to cutting social spending.

But this idea doesn’t just have the masses on its side; it has the elites, and even some Republican elites. Once championed by the granddaddy of liberal economics, John Maynard Keynes, the banner of a financial transactions tax has been picked up by conservative economists including Sheila Bair, George W. Bush’s appointee to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"Corporate Profits Are Eating the Economy"

Derek Thompson @ The Atlantic:
Here are two things that are true about the economy today.

(1) The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to set a new record as corporate profits stretch to all-time highs.

(2) There are still fewer working Americans today than there were before the start of the Great Recession.

The fact that these two things can be true at the same time might outrage you. But it shouldn't surprise you. In the last 30 years, there has been a great divergence between growth and workers' incomes, as the New York Times reminds us today. Corporate profits have soared, in the last decade especially, particularly because of three things:

Globalization has pushed down the cost of labor available to multinational corporations; technology has allowed companies to make more with fewer workers, in general; and Big Finance has gobbled up the economy, as the banks' share of total corporate profits has tripled to about one-third since the middle of the last century, according to Evan Soltas.

Here's the short story of corporate profits, GDP, and workers' income since the Great Recession. As you can see, corporations rode a wild roller coaster, but they quickly found their way back on top. GDP has been sluggish and overall labor income has struggled to keep up with even that sluggish pace.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 12.42.26 PM.png
Here's the longer view. Zoom out to the turn of the century, and you can see that this isn't a "recession" trend. It's just a trend that the recession has amplified. Corporate profits starting eating the economy around 2003, around the time the housing market started delivering massive profits to finance companies.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 12.37.51 PM.png

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"The Sequestering of Barack Obama"

Robert Kuttner @ The American Prospect takes a hard look at the economics and politics of the sequester in the context of President Obama's overall strategic and substantive performance on the economy - a sobering critique:
President Obama has miscalculated both the tactical politics of the sequester and the depressive economic impact of budget cuts on the rest of his presidency. The sequester will cut economic growth in half this year. But it’s now clear, one way or another, that we will get cuts in the $85 billion range that the sequester mandates this fiscal year. All that remains are the details.
Obama’s miscalculation began in his fist term, with his embrace of the premise that substantial deficit cutting was both politically expected and economically necessary, and his appointment of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission as the expression of that mistaken philosophy. Although the Commission’s plan was never carried out, its prestige and Obama’s parentage of it locked the president into a deflationary deficit reduction path.
This past week, we’ve seen how the Republicans took advantage of Obama’s self-inflicted wound. With the March 1 deadline looming, the White House assumed that if the president gave enough publicity to the harm of pending automatic cuts, the Republicans would just cave. But the Republican leadership calculated that the ensuing political and economic damage would be worse for Obama, so they hung tough.

Obama also assumed that military cuts would be enough to move Republicans to  compromise. But with two wars winding down, most Republicans decided that this year they were deficit hawks more than defense hawks.

The president also played the populist card, calling for tax increase on the wealthy to spare the rest of the country program cuts. But that didn’t move the Republicans either.
The Republican leadership also deftly evaded the risk of being blamed for shutting down the government. They offered the Democrats a continuing resolution to allow government to keep operating, but at $85 billion below current spending levels. That shifted the onus to Democrats if they refused to take the deal and Congressional leaders advised the president that they were not prepared to take that risk.

Finally, Republicans took some of the sting—and responsibility—out of the sequester by offering to give Obama new flexibility in how he implemented it, thus making it even more his problem.

Next to come is the long awaited grand bargain of the austerity lobby, in which Republicans agree to close some tax loopholes (which start out grotesquely swollen) and Democrats agree to breach the previously sacrosanct fortresses of Social Security and Medicare.

On all counts, advantage: Republicans.

Long term, colluding in the politics of budget austerity has left Obama with no real capacity to offer the public investment that the economy needs for a robust, broadly-based recovery, and leaves him with the prospect of a weak economy between now and the end of his term--unless he drastically shifts course and repudiates the entire view of the budget and the economy.

Friday, March 1, 2013


Professor Krugman @ NYTs:
We’re just a few weeks away from a milestone I suspect most of Washington would like to forget: the start of the Iraq war. What I remember from that time is the utter impenetrability of the elite prowar consensus. If you tried to point out that the Bush administration was obviously cooking up a bogus case for war, one that didn’t bear even casual scrutiny; if you pointed out that the risks and likely costs of war were huge; well, you were dismissed as ignorant and irresponsible.

It didn’t seem to matter what evidence critics of the rush to war presented: Anyone who opposed the war was, by definition, a foolish hippie. Remarkably, that judgment didn’t change even after everything the war’s critics predicted came true. Those who cheered on this disastrous venture continued to be regarded as “credible” on national security (why is John McCain still a fixture of the Sunday talk shows?), while those who opposed it remained suspect. 

And, even more remarkably, a very similar story has played out over the past three years, this time about economic policy. Back then, all the important people decided that an unrelated war was an appropriate response to a terrorist attack; three years ago, they all decided that fiscal austerity was the appropriate response to an economic crisis caused by runaway bankers, with the supposedly imminent danger from budget deficits playing the role once played by Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. 

Now, as then, this consensus has seemed impenetrable to counterarguments, no matter how well grounded in evidence. And now, as then, leaders of the consensus continue to be regarded as credible even though they’ve been wrong about everything (why do people keep treating Alan Simpson as a wise man?), while critics of the consensus are regarded as foolish hippies even though all their predictions — about interest rates, about inflation, about the dire effects of austerity — have come true. 

So here’s my question: Will it make any difference that Ben Bernanke has now joined the ranks of the hippies? 

Earlier this week, Mr. Bernanke delivered testimony that should have made everyone in Washington sit up and take notice. True, it wasn’t really a break with what he has said in the past or, for that matter, with what other Federal Reserve officials have been saying, but the Fed chairman spoke more clearly and forcefully on fiscal policy than ever before — and what he said, translated from Fedspeak into plain English, was that the Beltway obsession with deficits is a terrible mistake.