Saturday, August 31, 2013

Scary Thought on Labor Day Weekend: Obama's Economic Team Think They Are Doing a Good Job

Dean Baker @ Center for Economic & Policy Research:

Ezra Klein gives us some terrifying news in a Bloomberg column today. President Obama's economic team think they are doing a great job, hence the desire to bring back former teammate Larry Summers as Fed chair. This is terrifying because the economy this Labor Day is described by a set of statistics that can only be described as horrible.

We are almost 9 million jobs below the trend level of employment. The number of people involuntarily working part-time is still up by almost 4 million from its pre-recession level. Wages have been stagnant for a decade and show no signs of increasing any time soon.

And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy is still operating more than $1 trillion (6 percent) below its potential. Oh, and by the way, the financial sector is more concentrated than ever, with top honchos drawing the same sort of paychecks they did before the crisis.

I could go on but what's the point? This is an economy that under other circumstances we would all say is awful. The Obama team can pat themselves on the back for saying its better than a second Great Depression, but that's a bit like saying that the 1962 Mets didn't lose all their games. Horrible is horrible.

" The Audacity of the Fight for Higher Wages"

Jared Bernstein @ NYT's Economix:
I was struck Thursday by the juxtaposition of two stories in the news (two and half, really).
First, the banks had another banner quarter in terms of profits, up $42 billion, or 23 percent from last year.  News reports emphasized lower loan losses, meaning the banks had to mark down or charge off fewer nonperforming loans.  That increases the share of their capital that they can put to work spinning off profits, something they are very good at.

A classic case of it takes money to make money.

At the other end of the economy were the striking fast-food workers, calling for an increase in their pay to $15 an hour (the average for these workers is around $9, up from $8.66 in 2009).

I also noted — this is the half-a-report I mentioned above — that in the upward revision to second-quarter gross domestic product that came out on Thursday, corporate profits were  again up near record highs as a share of national income while compensation fell again and is now at the lowest share it has been since the year I was born (1955 — ancient history, I know).

And yet, what I mostly heard about this was about the audacity and the economic illiteracy of the strikers.  Don’t they realize that it’s still a tough economy?  Don’t they get that their employers are not the big corporations but the franchisees who can’t afford to pay more?  Don’t they get that the increase will just have to be passed on in prices?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Japan's pump-primed recovery proves US deficit hawks wrong"

Dean Baker @ The Guardian:
Many of the people who ridicule efforts at using government spending to boost the economy and create jobs like to turn to Japan to warn countries from following that route. After all, Japan's budget deficit last year was more than 10% of GDP. That would be more than $1.6tn in the US economy today. Its gross debt is more than 245% of GDP. That would imply a debt of almost $40tn in the United States, which would mean a debt of $125,000 for every man, women, and child in the country.

Those are the sorts of numbers that policy types in Washington find really scary. Fortunately for the Japanese people, the folks currently running their economy are more interested in sound economic policy than pushing scare stories about debt and deficits. Rather than rushing to reduce the deficit, Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went in the opposite direction. He deliberately increased spending to create jobs.

He also appointed a new head of Japan's central bank who is committed to raising the inflation rate. Japan has been suffering from near-zero inflation, or even deflation, since the collapse of its stock and housing bubbles in 1990. Abe's pick as head of the central bank has committed the bank to raising the inflation rate to 2%. Implicit in this commitment is the notion that the bank will buy up as many Japanese government bonds as needed to reach its inflation target.

In other words, the bank is prepared to print lots of money.

While we are still in the early days of Abe's program (he just took office at the end of 2012), the preliminary signs are positive. The economy grew at a 2.4% annual rate in the second quarter, after growing at a 3.6% rate in the first quarter. By comparison, GDP in the United States grew at an average rate of just 1.4% in these two quarters.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Median Income Still 6% Below Level at Start of Recession in ’07

Robert Pear @ New York Times:
Median household income has begun to recover over the last two years, but households still have not come close to regaining the purchasing power they had before the financial crisis began, a new study says.

"Why are we rushing to get rid of Fannie & Freddie?"

Barkley Rosser @ Econospeak:
"How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?
Five: One to change the bulb and four to talk about how great the old bulb was."

I think I am turning into my late father, a conservative in the old traditional way of defending existing institutions and practices.  Here I go, about to defend Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whom all Very Serious People know should go as soon as possible.  President Obama thinks they should go, and we have two bills in Congress that will lead to that outcome, one in the Senate co-sponsored by Dem Sen. Warner of VA (my state) and Rep Sen. Corker of TN, both VSPs in good standing, while in the House Banking Chair Hensarling (R-TX) also has such a bill.  I mean wow, we have both the president and VSPs from both parties in Congress on this.  It must be great.  I mean, we all know that they were responsible for all the problems in the housing market that led to you know what!

Well, except maybe not.  Buried in the Saturday Real Estate section of the Washington Post today we have Kenneth Harley raising some questions.  Yes, indeed, both of these entities are most certainly open to serious criticism.  To varying degrees they have had histories of mismanagement and even corruption.  They were buying lots of subprime mortgages at the peak of the housing bubble.  Republican critics even claim that they were prime instruments in getting the whole bubble going because they supposedly pressured banks to lend to inappropriate poor minority home buyers under pressure from Clinton, although most observers do not buy this case.  Furthermore, they essentially went belly up with the bust and needed to be bailed out by a government takeover.  The case looks pretty strong for at least reforming them, if not outright getting rid of them.

However, Harley notes that they are now making money and paying off their loans.  Furthermore, not only have they been funding many housing market deals during these recent years of a desperately weak housing market, they were the only entity in the US that was doing so at the pit of the crash (a point Harley does not make).  Indeed, Harley reports that "Economists at Moody's Analytics estimate that dumping the companies and switching to a plan advocated by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Mark Warner (D-VA) 'would increase the interest rate for the average mortgage borrower' by one-half to three-quarters of a percentage point."  And, it should be noted that in contrast to the Hensarling plan in the House, the Corker-Warner plan actually does propose putting in place a housing market equivalent of the FDIC to provide insurance for housing lenders in the absence of the evil Fannie and Freddie.  Presumably the rates would go higher under the no-backdrop-at-all-plan of Hensarling.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Inside a Subprime Mortgage Bundle...6 years later

Peter Eavis @ NYT's Dealbook:
A subprime deal came back to haunt Fabrice Tourre, a former Goldman Sachs trader, when a federal jury in Manhattan found him liable for civil securities fraud.
He is not the only one feeling the pain of a subprime transaction six years on.

Hundreds of thousands of subprime borrowers are still struggling. Some of their mortgages ended up in another Goldman deal that was done at the same time as Mr. Tourre was working on his own financial alchemy.

In February 2007, just before everything fell apart, Goldman Sachs bundled thousands of subprime mortgages from across the country and sold them to investors. This bond became toxic as soon as it was completed. The mortgages slid into default at a speed that was staggering even for that era.

Despite those losses, that bond still lives. It has undoubtedly left its mark on ordinary borrowers. But the impact of the deal spread ever further. It touched the bankers who sold the deal. It even landed on taxpayers, who ended up owning a large slice of the Goldman bond.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Does Walmart create jobs?

Kathleen Grier @ Salon:
Contrary to Walmart’s self-glorifying mythology, the retailer is anything but a job creator — in fact it is a huge job killer. Not only that, destroying jobs is an essential component of Walmart’s anti-worker business model. Let’s put aside Walmart’s happy talk and examine the cold, hard facts.

First, let’s look at the impact of Walmart on local labor markets. The largest, most rigorous study conducted on the subject is this peer-reviewed article from 2008. Its lead author is economist David Neumark, who is no wild-eyed liberal. (See, for example, this anti-minimum wage op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal).
Earlier studies did not adequately deal with selection bias: i.e., the problem that when and where Walmart chooses to open new stores is not random, but tends to be correlated with other variables. Those confounding variables make it difficult to determine whether local employment outcomes are causally related to Walmart‘s entry, or to something else. I’ll skip the technical details, but suffice it to say Neumark and his co-authors devised a sophisticated methodology that accounts for the selection bias. Using data from over 3,000 counties, their results show that when a Walmart store opens, it kills an average 150 retail jobs at the county level, with each Walmart worker replacing about 1.4 retail workers. These results are robust under a variety of models and tests.

Other strong studies found similar results. A 2008 peer-reviewed study that looked at Maryland concluded that Walmart’s presence significantly decreased retail employment, by up to 414 jobs. And a 2009 study by Loyola University found that the opening of a Chicago Walmart store was “a wash,” destroying as many jobs as it created: “There is no evidence that Wal-Mart sparked any significant net growth in economic activity or employment in the area,” according to the report. In short, when Walmart comes to town, it doesn’t “create” anything. All it does is put mom-and-pop stores out of business.

Justice for all...

The Daily Show on "Too Big To Jail"

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The economy is worse than the lower unemployment rate suggests

Wonkblog/ Ezra Klein @ WaPo:

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
unemployment vs share

The core issue here is that the unemployment rate only counts people actively looking for work. That means there are two ways to leave the ranks of the unemployed. One way — the good way — is to get a job. The other way is to stop looking for work, either because you’ve retired, or become discouraged, or begun working off the books.

The yellow line on the left shows the official unemployment rate since 2008. It’s fallen from over 10 percent to under 8 percent. But the red line on the right shows the actual employment rate — that is, the percentage of working-age adults with jobs. What should scare you is that the red line has barely budged.

At the beginning of 2007, the employment rate was 63.3 percent, and the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. By the end of 2009 — so, after the worst of the recession — it had fallen to 58.3 percent, and unemployment was up to 9.9 percent. Today, it’s 58.7 percent, even though unemployment has fallen to 7.6 percent. That means a lot of the people who’ve left the rolls of the unemployed haven’t gotten a new job. They’ve just left the labor force altogether.

Some of that’s natural. The population is aging, and the labor force was expected to shrink. But it wasn’t expected to shrink this much. The economy is a lot worse than a glance at the unemployment rate suggests. And instead of doing anything to help those people get back to work, Washington canceled the payroll tax cut, permitted sequestration to go into effect, and is now arguing about whether to shut down the federal government — and possibly breach the debt ceiling — in the fall.

"Sex, Money & Gravitas"

 Krugman @ NYTs:
Can a woman effectively run the Federal Reserve? That shouldn’t even be a question. And Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Fed’s Board of Governors, isn’t just up to the job; by any objective standard, she’s the best-qualified person in America to take over when Ben Bernanke steps down as chairman.

Yet there are not one but two sexist campaigns under way against Ms. Yellen. One is a whisper campaign whose sexism is implicit, while the other involves raw misogyny. And both campaigns manage to combine sexism with very bad economic analysis. 

Let’s start with the more extreme, open campaign. Last week, The New York Sun published an editorial attacking Ms. Yellen titled “The Female Dollar.” The editorial took it for granted that the Fed has been following disastrously inflationary monetary policies for years, even though actual inflation is at a 50-year low. And it warned that things would get even worse if the dollar were to become merely “gender-backed.” I am not making this up. 

True, The Sun is a marginal publication, with strong gold-bug tendencies, and nobody would pay much attention if the rest of the right had ignored or distanced itself from that editorial. In fact, however, The Wall Street Journal immediately followed up with its own editorial along the same lines, in the course of which it approvingly quoted The Sun piece, female dollar and all. 

The other campaign against Ms. Yellen has been subtler, involving repeated suggestions — almost always off the record — that she lacks the “gravitas” to lead the Fed. What does that mean? Well, suppose we were talking about a man with Ms. Yellen’s credentials: distinguished academic work, leader of the Council of Economic Advisers, six years as president of the San Francisco Fed, a record of working effectively with colleagues at the Board of Governors. Would anyone suggest that a man with those credentials was somehow unqualified for office? 

Sorry, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that gravitas, in this context, mainly means possessing a Y chromosome. 

Both anti-Yellen campaigns, then, involve unmistakable sexism, and should be condemned for that reason. As it happens, however, both campaigns have another problem, too: They’re based on bad economic analysis.