Free Markets, Free People

recession


Down the memory hole – Obama’s promises

You remember this or at least have read or seen it on a video:

Bob Schieffer: “The fact is, unemployment is up. It is higher than when [President Obama] came to office, the economy is still in the dump. Some people say that is reason enough to make a change.”

Bill Clinton:”It is if you believe that we could have been fully healed in four years. I don’t know a single serious economist who believes that as much damage as we had could have been healed.”

CBS’s “Face the Nation,” September 23, 2012

That’s exactly the meme the Democrats have been trying to establish for some time.  First it was “but imagine how much worse it would have been if we hadn’t have acted”.  That foundered on the rocks of 8.2% unemployment.

The new meme is to claim – and that’s all it is – that no one expected the economy to be healed in 4 years, no one.  And certainly not any “serious economist(s)”.

But as the Wall Street Journal points out, plenty of serious people, or at least people who’d like to have you take them seriously, not to mention a couple of “serious economists” promised exactly that – we’d be healed in 4 years.  The list?

There’s Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Christina Romer, Jared Bernstein, Mark Zandi, and, most importantly, President Obama himself.

Yup, that’s the case, whether or not the spin- meister, Bill Clinton wants to believe it or not.  So how did that work?

Mr. Obama told Americans in 2009 that if he did not turn around the economy in three years his Presidency would be “a one-term proposition.” Joe Biden said three years ago that the $830 billion economic stimulus was working beyond his “wildest dreams” and he famously promised several months after the Obama stimulus was enacted that Americans would enjoy a “summer of recovery.” That was more than three years ago.

In early 2009 soon-to-be White House economists Ms. Romer and Mr. Bernstein promised Congress that the stimulus would hold the unemployment rate below 7% and that by now it would be 5.6%. Instead the rate is 8.1%. The latest Census Bureau report says there are nearly seven million fewer full-time, year-round workers today than in 2007. The labor participation rate is the lowest since 1981.

You don’t say.  So, in fact, plenty of serious people and at least two serious economists make Bill Clinton a liar.  Yeah, I know, that’s harsh considering most people don’t consider political spin a “lie” per se.  I’m just not one of those people.

There have been other excuses tried by the administration and its apologists as well:

The Administration and its acolytes claim that the nature of the 2008 financial collapse was different from past recessions, and that it can take up to a decade to restore growth after such a financial crisis. Economist Michael Bordo rebuts that claim with historical economic evidence nearby.

In reality, the biggest difference between this recovery and others hasn’t been the nature of the crisis, but the nature of the policy prescriptions. Mr. Obama’s chief anti-recession idea was a near trillion-dollar leap of faith in the Keynesian “multiplier” effect of government spending. It was the same approach that didn’t work in the 1930s, didn’t work in the 1970s, didn’t work in 2008, and didn’t work in such other nations as Japan. It didn’t work again in 2009.

The fact remains that there were plenty of promises made by plenty of serious people to include “serious economists” saying they had a plan that would heal us in 4 years.

They have utterly failed.

Tell me again why they should get another 4 years to prolong the failure?

~McQ

Twitter: McQandO

Facebook: QandO


Economic reality welcomes new college grads

And it isn’t what they expected or hoped it would be:

A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge.

Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor’s degrees.

We continue to hear that we’re in a recovery, that we’re seeing better times, that all is now well.

Of course, it’s not.  In fact, as we mentioned in the podcast last night, we’re not seeing anywhere near the growth necessary to shake this recession.  Instead, we’ve found and are bouncing along the bottom (or at least what is the bottom for now – believe it or not, it could again get worse).

Unemployment numbers for the last two months have “unexpectedly” worse.  And while the official rate is 8.2%, most realize the real unemployment rate is much higher and in double digits.

That is the world today’s college grads are facing.  It is a buyers market, for those that are actually hiring college grads and so they are able to select among the best.  Guess what majors are faring best?

While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder.

Majors with immediate applicability in still growing fields of course.  Meanwhile, there’s not much demand for the softer and less applicable fields.   And even in the majors where demand is still high, entry level jobs are of a lower type:

Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

This is one of those teachable moments.  A sheepskin is no longer a guarantee to a high paying job.  And that’s certainly true of those who indulge themselves in a humanities or art degree, etc. 

College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

While perhaps the brightest and best in those areas will indeed find good paying jobs coming out of the chute, the vast majority are going to be taking jobs, if they can find them, well outside their major field of study.

By the way, I use the term “indulge” above purposefully.  It would be nice to indulge yourself in something you might enjoy in college and major in it.  But then don’t whine when you find out that all of the companies you feel should have the benefit of your august presence aren’t as excited about your degree in gender studies as you are.

That gets down to the purpose of college to each person.  Is it a means of achieving a job and a life style to which one aspires and a willingness to do what is necessary to accomplish that?  Or is it a place one indulges themselves giving little or no thought to the reality that awaits them at graduation?

What we are seeing is the market for college grads making a very definitive statement.  It is sending signals.  It is telling everyone what type of degrees are being sought and which aren’t.  And because of the tightness of the market, it is making decisions on merit, with the brightest and best capturing jobs and the also ran’s waiting tables.

"I don’t even know what I’m looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.

Imagine that … creative writing degree.  Wonderful stuff, but not to the market for those with college degrees.  One would think that a person pursuing that sort of degree would have probably researched that and have a plan which might not include someone else hiring them first (i.e. selling their work on a freelance basis, etc. and knowing how to do that).

Had Mr. Bldsoe had a degree in physics or accounting or engineering, he’d stand a much better chance of being employed in his field of study.  Then he could indulge himself in his creative writing passion.  In fact, it would likely give him the means to do that.

Instead … “you want a tall or a grande?”

I still haven’t yet figured out why supposedly bright people can’t figure that little thing out.  Markets are talking.  Markets are sending signals.  When you choose something as your major that these markets have no interest in, what do you suppose is going to happen unless you have a plan to go out on your own immediately?

They’re not going to hire you just because you feel your major is important.  You’re going to hire someone if they feel the major is important and  you have demonstrated competence in that field at a level they require.

This is the reality that, for the first time, many recent college grads are coming to grips with.

One thing this recession may finally do is drive home the idea that indulging yourself is a useless degree is not very bright or productive.

Want to study creative writing?  Fine.  They have minors as well in colleges.  Make it your minor.  But for heaven sake, take a clue and look at what is being demanded out there before declaring a major.  Certainly it may not be your passion, but then unless you want to spend your days immediately after college waiting tables or hoping for a labor sellers market, where jobs are plentiful, you had better commit to a useful major.

I know, I know, that supply and demand thingy again.  Gender studies majors aren’t into “markets” and “supply and demand” stuff. What’s wrong with me?  They have a college degree, the world should be beating a pathway to their door, no?

No.

Welcome to reality … and reality includes the immutable laws of economics whether one likes them or not.  And right now, those with useless degrees find themselves on the wrong side of the demand curve.

Don’t like economics?

Then content yourself with making frappes.

Otherwise, it’s time to wise up, use that superior brain for what it was designed and “indulge” yourself in something the job market finds useful and valuable.  Refusal to do that means a guaranteed rough transition into the real world, especially now.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


The economy: A little graphic context

This chart will blow you away (via James Pethakoukis):

 

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The NY Fed explains:

The first figure shows how these three labor market variables evolved over the four post-1973 business cycles (excluding the short 1980 cycle), along with developments in the Great Recession and current recovery. We start at the lowest level of the unemployment rate before the recession and then follow the changes for three years after the rate reaches its maximum level. For the current expansion, the maximum unemployment rate occurred in October 2009.

The employment-to-population ratio displays a classic V-shape recession and recovery pattern in the 1970s and 1980s. In the recession and recovery of the early 1990s, however, the employment-to-population ratio instead displays a U shape, only returning to its pre-recession level three years after the peak in the unemployment rate. In the recession and recovery of the early 2000s, neither the participation rate nor the employment-to-population ratio returns to its previous level, so we see an incomplete U-shape pattern.

In the most recent cycle, the employment-to-population ratio traces out an L shape, but the unemployment rate falls because the participation rate declines substantially (a much more gradual decline was expected by many given the aging of the baby boomers); in other words, a larger share of the population is out of the labor force rather than participating and being unemployed.

We’ve seen a lot of happy talk about how well the economy is doing now.  Most of that comes from the media which has about as much of a grasp on the economy and how it works as does the current occupant of the White House.

A look at those four recessionary cycles gives context to the depth of the one we’re currently battling.    If you look closely at the part of the chart depicting our current situation, you realize that while we’ve seemingly bottomed out, the employment-to-population ratio is not rising.   And that, of course, is because of the horrendous drop in the labor force participation.

It points out two things – one that the “official” unemployment rate should be taken with a grain of salt.   And two, that the stimulus had little apparent effect (sorry, but I don’t buy the “it could have been worse” argument.  We have no way of knowing that) if the purpose was to shorten the recessionary cycle and keeping employment below 8%.  It did neither of those things.

Finally, no matter what numbers and happy talk the media and administration throw out there, unemployment and the state of the economy are a very personal things to voters.  Those who remain unemployed certainly aren’t seeing an “improvement” in the economy from where they sit.  And it is from there they’ll make their decision as to who they’ll vote for in November.  All the media smoke and mirrors about the improving economy aren’t likely to sway those who remain unemployed or are underemployed to see it their way.  They’ll, instead, vote the reality of their situation and are unlikely to vote for the candidate who they feel has done little to ameliorate their situation.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Will Eurobonds Work?

(Originally posted at Risk and Return)

I have been skeptical and so is James Bianco:

The problem in Europe is simple – they created a common currency – the euro. For years, the market erred. It thought that meant that every sovereign debt had the same rating as Germany. I was buying Greek bonds. I was buying Irish bonds. I was buying Italian bonds. But I thought I was buying German bonds. Then, a couple of years ago, I had an epiphany – no, I was not buying German bonds; I was buying Greece, Italy, and Ireland, or whatever, not Germany.

Those countries, recognizing that they could borrow into infinity because everybody thought they were lending to Germany, pretty much did that and expanded their welfare states to the point where they cannot pay their debts.

Germany has disappointed everybody with its intransigence, its unwillingness to “get with the program,” and endorse massive ECB bond buying and Eurobonds. Their reason? They believe they will be stuck with the bill. Of course, they are right, they will be:

If a Eurobond market comes with with strict discipline/rules on borrowing and paying debt back, it might work.  Unfortunately no one will agree to a Eurobond market with strict discipline/rules.

If a Eurobond market comes with no discipline/rules, then it is just another way to trick the market into thinking they are buying German Bunds.   It will “work” for a while as the crisis will ease until everyone borrows too much money and then comes back much worse.

I am not even sure it will work more than a few days at this point, but maybe. Either way it is not a solution, but a stop gap at best. It is also a stop gap that should not be attempted unless an actual endgame is in sight:

So how do you fix the Euro crisis?  Unfortunately there are only three solutions and all are distasteful:

  • Call off the union and go back to legacy currencies.  This destroys the banking system who will be paid back with devalued/nearly worthless currencies.
  • Massive austerity.  This option is very unpopular among the electorates and will cause a bad recession/depression.
  • Fiscal union.  This is a nice way of saying Germany finally wins WW2.  Is the rest of Europe now ready to take orders from Berlin?  Didn’t they fight two wars to prevent this?

The only reason ECB printing keeps being mentioned is because the three options above are untenable and money printing is the only other thing they can think of.  Money printing does NOT fix anything, it just makes the problem better for a while until it comes back worse than before.

This dovetails with my analysis in The German Dilemma that their are no good options from the German perspective, and in fact fiscal union is far more problematic than commonly realized:

Full Fiscal Integration: Since all other solutions put in place circumstances that are unstable and merely kick the can down the road, the fundamental flaw in the Euro needs to be addressed. That is the lack of a unified fiscal policy. The answer then is the end of sovereignty, the creation of a US of Europe. An obvious objection is that Germany wants to be a sovereign nation. We’ll skip this niggling little detail, but even if they didn’t want to remain sovereign do they want to harmonize laws and economic policy with Greece and some of the other PIIGS? West Germany just  integrated with East Germany and the experience was traumatic featuring massive transfers to East Germans. The PIIGS will still not be competitive with Germany. That means internal adjustments (internal devaluation or austerity) to allow them to become more competitive for the PIIGS’ or massive transfers. Thus unifying the Eurozone under a single fiscal policy means massive transfers from Germany to the PIIGS to harmonize the welfare states and unify the debt and avoid austerity throwing the entire Eurozone into depression. Germans will pay for the debt in one fashion or another.

Cullen Roche points out that in the US we don’t worry much about the need for internal transfers between states to keep the system sound.  Today that is true, though it has led to large conflicts in our past, playing a role in civil unrest, uprisings, the conquest of a continent and near destruction of its former inhabitants and the Civil War. Our unity was easier to envision and still born of blood and tragedy.

I am not saying unification of Europe would lead to such tragedies and conflicts. However, we need to ask if Germany (or really all the countries) want to make the internal transfers that make such a system work? Germans would pay a great deal, Greece and the other PIIGS would suffer internal austerity to the extent that they contribute to the economic re-balancing. Do Europeans, or most importantly the Germans, view themselves as a people who will be responsible for paying all the bills to integrate the Greeks and others?

Are Europeans ready to think about their home countries in the same way Texans think of Texas? Their state, but completely subordinate to the US? Will they be able to secede? We answered that question in the US with a war of incredible savagery and destruction. My guess is a unified Europe would be far less stable. They will not choose a civil war comparable to the US, but instead countries leaving over time as well as never entering the union. That leaves us with all the problems we have now still being there. Without a European populace overwhelmingly in favor of a true union this will not work. We would be faced with a PIIGS like crisis with every election and the possibility of secession in each of the former countries.

The necessity of creating a union where there is no possibility of secession, where citizens are more loyal to the European sovereign entity than their own countries is incredibly unappreciated. Half measures will not work. If Texas were to get upset about staying in our own Union it would not matter how overwhelmingly popular the idea of leaving was in the Texas legislature, the US military will ensure that Texas stays a subordinate state. We decided that issue in 1865 at the cost of well over 600k casualties.

If a similarly firm enforcement of Eurozone union is not agreed to (and setting aside a war to force union) then why should the market assume the system will remain intact? Why consider the bonds issued by the various states, or the Eurozone as a whole, deserve a AAA rating?  My belief is that eventually the Eurozone will suffer other crises as states face local elections that wish to leave for one reason or another. Critically Eurobonds and fiscal Union make it easier for countries to leave, since the debt will be the Eurozone’s, not theirs. They can leave and stick the remaining members with the bill. That is an incentive which virtually ensures instability.

Treaties don’t matter if there is no enforcement mechanism, and all enforcement mechanisms at the end of the day have to have a credible belief in military force behind them to matter. Otherwise those who wish to exit can just thumb their noses at whoever stays behind. Has there ever been a successful union where the underlying members could leave? Not that I am aware of.

There are no good options, only more or less realistic ones.


The Decapitalization of the West

There is an implicit, if unspoken consensus among many—if not most—in the economic community of the west that the worst portion of our current economic difficulty is behind us. That the economy, weak and shaky as it may be, has avoided the danger of complete collapse. The opinion holds that we can look forward resignedly, if not confidently, to a period, however long, of subpar economic growth, but growth nonetheless.

I fear that confidence is misplaced. The fiscal and monetary policy mix we seem determined to pursue, is not only unwise, but presents grave economic risks that should not be overlooked. I am not the only one to feel this way.  On Monday, Professor Kevin Dowd gave the address shown below at the Adam Smith Institute, the UK’s leading Libertarian think tank. It’s entitled The Decapitalization of the West, and it’s primary theme, as a survey of the economies of the West, and their policy results, can best be encapsulated with the lyrics of a Noel Coward song: " There are bad times just around the corner, There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky".

It takes an hour of your time to watch this. You owe yourself that hour, if for no other reason than to learn how you might prepare for the economic troubles for which 2009 was just a prelude.

The Decapitalization of the West

"Keynesianism has been tested to destruction," and we’re about to pay the price for that testing.

~
Dale Franks
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Nobel Prize-winning economist endorses my economic analysis

Well, this is interesting.  Paul Krugman finally agrees with me:

[W]e already know what isn’t working: the economic policy of the past two years — and the millions of Americans who should have jobs, but don’t."

I’d just like to point out that I knew those economic policies wouldn’t work back in 2009, writing about them here. Since then, I’ve just been watching the kangaroo. So It’s nice to see Krugman joining me in declaring "fail"—though he does so with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.

I eagerly anticipate my upcoming invitation to Sweden.

Where we diverge is in providing solutions. As always, Krugman’s solution is more spending, and more debt.  But with debt already at 100% of GDP, we’re really in uncharted waters, and I have no confidence that more debt is the answer, if the problem is the existing debt overhang.

The real question I’m concentrating on is, "At what point do the markets recognize not only that the debt path we’re on is unsustainable, but that it is going to be impossible to pay it back?"  Is that 120% of GDP? 150%?  I don’t know.  But I fear that we’re going to learn the answer.

On the bright side, I’ll be able to pay off the remaining 19 years of my mortgage for the cost of a nice hat. On the down side, a new Astros baseball cap will cost $200,000. On the bright side, again, the $100,000 from my Nobel will cover half of that, so it’s all good.

~
Dale Franks
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The markets are telling us things

Let’s see how today went, shall we? We got our debt ceiling deal, but the Dow dropped 266 points, and the S&P 500 fell 33 points, so it’s now negative for the year. The yield on the 10-year T-note dropped to 2.61%. Gold, meanwhile, hit a fresh record high of $1,644.50/oz. So, I guess this year’s Recovery Summer is over.

None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the debt limit battle in DC. No one on Wall Street really thought a deal wouldn’t be struck. At the end of the day, everybody was pretty confident that the debt ceiling would be raised, and a default avoided.

Stock prices are volatile, of course, so one day’s movement doesn’t mean much, but we have lost about 800 points on the Dow since 22 July, so the trend isn’t good.  What’s worse is the steady decline on treasury yields and the climbing price of gold. When you couple that with the 0.4% 1Q GDP increase, and the danger of downward revisions to the lackluster 2Q GDP over the next two months, the evolving picture doesn’t look pretty. We’ve also has a few weeks of unremittingly bad economic releases, showing the economy might be heading back towards recession, and unemployment getting closer to 10% than 8%.

So then what’s the problem? I mean, we’ve had our big stimulus, and our TARP and our Quantitative Easing I and II, and we’re still not only barely budging into positive GDP territory, but now all the signs are showing the economy slowing. What’s happening? Why isn’t any of this working?

I think the answer can be found in what I wrote in my previous post about debt levels, and how over the last several years…

…a body of peer-reviewed work has been developed (PDF) that shows that an excess of government debt serves as a drag on the economy, shaving at least a full percentage point off of annual GDP growth. And we’ve learned that this negative economic effect has a non-linear effect on economic growth as debt increases.

What seems to happen is that, as you begin to approach a debt-to-GDP ratio of 100%, economic growth slows. As you add debt, there’s a non-linear decrease in economic growth. and each additional increment of debt slows growth more than the last. As I also pointed out, this has some pretty scary implications for Keynesian policies, because as you add debt, you’re no longer stimulating growth, you’re hindering it ever more strongly.

That puts policy makers in a pretty bad spot.  For instance, right now, real short-term interest rates are effectively zero, so the interest rate tool is no longer of any use to the Fed. You can’t lower rates below 0%. With that tool gone, the only thing left to try and stimulate the economy is to add more debt. Conversely, cutting spending will result in more government workers and contractors being moved over to the unemployment line, and the economy still slows. It’s a trap, where all the standard policy moves result in a slowing economy.

Back in the 80’s my fellow Econ and Business undergrads would debate about all the debt Reagan was adding, and trying to figure out when all that debt would begin crowding out private investment and slowing economic growth. As it turned out, it took far longer than any of us believed it would, but I think we finally have the answer.

The really scary this is that, if we decided that we had to bite the bullet, and impose some austerity, it really wouldn’t help much.  We could cut discretionary spending by half, and all it would do is gain us a few years of breathing space before the coming explosion in Social Security and Medicare entitlements—about $60-76 trillion worth of them—eat up any short-term savings and debt reduction we might acquire.  After all, discretionary spending—including defense—is only about 39% of the current budget anyway.

What part does economic growth play in all this?  Well, it’s clear that 2% per year isn’t going to help much.

It is a generally accepted truism that the trend rate of growth in a mature economy is 3%. There are a lot of reasons given for this; slower population growth in developed countries, large sunk costs in plant and capital, blah, blah, blah. But why should any of that matter? Just because population growth is slow, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the growth of wealth or human ingenuity is hampered.

Here is a reason for that slow growth that’s almost never given.  You see, one of the things that mature economies all seem to have in common is large government expenditures, extensive entitlements, massive regulatory oversight, and increasing debt. All of that is financed by taxation to remove money from the productive portion of the economy. So, one of the primary reasons we have slower economic growth is because we trade it for public goods.

Now, we may love these public goods. And they are certainly nice to have if you can afford them.  But the evidence is increasingly that we cannot.  if we could, we wouldn’t be racking up a level of peacetime debt that’s nearly 90% of GDP. Not only do we give up a lot of economic growth to sustain these public goods, but, apparently, we eventually give up all of it…at which point, we have to give up the public goods as well.

If we really want to climb out of this hole, then what we really need to do is to radically rethink what government should be, what it should be allowed to do, and how it’s funded. It’s not enough any more to cut budgets, while leaving the regulatory, entitlement, taxation, and spending structure intact. A truly radical solution would be to limit government spending and revenues to no more than 10% of GDP in peacetime. Replace the income tax with a 10% VAT. Eliminate the departments of Education, Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Agriculture. Repeal most Federal criminal laws. Privatize social security. Enforce free markets, rather than the crony capitalism we have now.

*sigh*

No one in our current political class has the slightest interest in any of those suggestions. Drastically reducing the size and scope of government is the only solution that can possibly increase economic growth substantially, and give us a shot at paying off our ever-increasing debt, but our current political class will never embrace that.

The thing is, reality doesn’t care what the political class—or anyone else for that matter—wants. It just is what it is. So, no matter what happens, we won’t have to worry about the deficit or government spending for much longer. Either we’ll fix the problem by electing a political class that’s devoted to cutting government across the board and paying down the debt. Or we won’t fix the problem, and the resulting bankruptcy and hyperinflation will allow us to monetize our debt, wipe out the life savings of every person in the country, and we will start over from scratch with a bright shiny new currency!

But the problem will get solved. The only question is how much control we’ll retain over the process, and how much government we’ll retain at the end of it.

~
Dale Franks
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Meanwhile, back to the mundane but very important stuff–the economy

I think Bob Gorrell’s cartoon fairly represents what we should be talking about now after a week of bin Ladanpalooza.

 

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As Dale said in the podcast last night, it seems much more likely we’re in the 2nd year of a “lost decade” than any real recovery.  You get the feeling, or at least I do, that our so-called economic experts at the tiller of the ship have absolutely no clue as to how to proceed.    Dale also mentions that if we were calculating unemployment and inflation like we used too in the ‘80s we’d most likely be looking at about 18% unemployment and 10% inflation and wearing our “Whip Inflation Now” buttons already.

In the meantime you can literally see the steam escaping the GOP push to trim the budget, cut spending and downsize government.   It’s like everyone in government (and many voters) are still in denial.

If we were to resurrect the Misery Index, I’d dare say we’d be in new territory speaking of misery.  And, as I stated on the podcast, I’m surprised there aren’t those out there asking Ronald Reagan’s favorite questions – “Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago?”

My intent isn’t to sound alarmist, but maybe it’s time to be more than just a little alarmed.  Commodities are rising, wages are flat, and while we did see over 200,000 jobs created this past cycle, 60,000 of them were at McDonalds – literally – and we saw over 400,000 initial claims for unemployment registered.  “Unexpected”, of course.

In fact, it seems that we’re getting sunshine pumped up our skirts with weekly pronouncements that it is “getting better” out there.  Well, I for one am not seeing that.

You?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Officials can call it what they want, most Americans think we’re still in a recession/depression

And like it or not, the Obama administration’s future probably depends on turning that around somehow:

The April 20-23 Gallup survey of 1,013 U.S. adults found that only 27 percent said the economy is growing. Twenty-nine percent said the economy is in a depression and 26 percent said it is in a recession, with another 16 percent saying it is "slowing down," Gallup said.

With growth slowing to 1.8% in the first quarter, those on the pessimistic side seem to have a point.

Severe winter weather, a dip in defense spending and higher energy prices all slowed the growth of gross domestic product in the January-through-March quarter.

Of course our economic experts – who’ve been so dead on all through the financial difficulties – say this is only a temporary blip and recovery should restart anytime.  But:

Leaders of the Federal Reserve, for example, said Wednesday that they expect the economy to grow 3.1 to 3.3 percent in 2011; in January their estimate was 3.4 to 3.9 percent.

Keep an eye on energy prices (which have an effect on everything we produce/buy) as a means of testing that claim.  If they stay up, which appears likely, then growth isn’t going to speed up that much.  Remember the economy needs to grow at about 2.5% annual clip to begin to expand the job markets.  Right now that isn’t happening.  And energy prices could be the drag that keeps it from happening.

Oh, and key demographic in the poll?

Fifty-seven percent of independent voters — a crucial segment of the electorate for Obama’s re-election bid — said the economy is in a recession or depression and 24 percent said it is growing.

Big job ahead to change those numbers around.   And not much time.

~McQ


Maybe I’m just an alarmist

In the Financial Times today, Martin Wolf comes out swinging (free registration required) against those who are afraid the Fed’s Quantitative Easing programs carry a danger of sparking serious inflation.

The essence of the contemporary monetary system is creation of money, out of nothing, by private banks’ often foolish lending. Why is such privatisation of a public function right and proper, but action by the central bank, to meet pressing public need, a road to catastrophe? When banks will not lend and the broad money supply is barely growing, that is just what it should be doing (see chart).

The hysterics then add that it is impossible to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet fast enough to prevent excessive monetary expansion. That is also nonsense. If the economy took off, nothing would be easier. Indeed, the Fed explained precisely what it would do in its monetary report to Congress last July. If the worst came to the worst, it could just raise reserve requirements. Since many of its critics believe in 100 per cent reserve banking, why should they object to a move in that direction?

Now turn to the argument that the Fed is deliberately weakening the dollar. Any moderately aware person knows that the Fed’s mandate does not include the external value of the dollar. Those governments that have piled up an extra $6,800bn in foreign reserves since January 2000, much of it in dollars, are consenting adults. Not only did no one ask China, the foremost example, to add the huge sum of $2,400bn to its reserves, but many strongly asked it not to do so.

Everything he says is correct, but that’s not really any help, because the implications are pretty severe, even if he’s completely right.

First, let’s assume the Fed can, via repos or changes in reserve requirements, sterilize the increase in the money supply. The problem then becomes when does the Fed do this sterilization. let’s go back to 1981-1982.  When the Fed was looking at monetary aggregates in the wake of the 1981 recession, they saw the money supply growing far faster than their target. At the time, the Fed’s primary tool was securities sales and purchases to control the rate of growth in the money supply directly, while letting the markets set interest rates. (Today, the fed primarily uses changes in the Discount Rate and Federal Funds target rate to run monetary policy.)

When the Fed saw those big increases in money supply, they immediately moved to sterilize the increases, to keep inflation in check.  Sadly, the lack of velocity in the money supply, i.e., its actual rate of use in transactions, was near zero. as a result, the Fed’s tightening threw the economy into another recession, with unemployment rising to 11%. The policy may have been correct, but the timing was wrong.

So, what guarantee do we have that the Fed will perform sterilization at precisely the right time? If they move too early, the economy shuts down, a la 1982.  Too late, and inflation takes off. Then the Fed would really have to tighten, which would probably result in another recession to wring out the extra inflation.

The trouble with the Fed is that monetary policy moves take 6-18 months to fully percolate through the economy. And they make these decisions based on economic data gathered in previous months. It’s like driving down the street by looking only at the rear-view mirror.

That makes proper timing by the Fed…hard.

Perhaps the Fed will operate as if run by infinitely wise solons, who know precisely when to sterilize their quantitative easing, either through repo operations, or raising the banks’ reserve requirements appropriately.

If it doesn’t, however, we’re looking at either another steep recession, or a bout of serious inflation, follwed by another serious recession to tame the inflation.

Oh, and even if the Fed is that good, it doesn’t address the problem of how the Chinese will react to any increased currency risk they face by holding dollar-denominated securities if the value of the dollar falls in the FOREX. As Mr. Wolf admits, the Fed’s mandate has nothing to do with the foreign exchange value of the dollar.  So, maybe, the Chinese will decide to sell as much of their holdings in Treasuries as they can.  That implies a serious decline in treasury prices, and a concommittant rise in bond yields, i.e., interest rates. Aaaand, we’re back to a possibility of a steep recession again Especially if they do it while the Fed is already in the middle of money supply sterilization operations.

So, I guess the question is, “How much to you trust in the ability of the Federal Reserve to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time?” And, “How much do you trust the Chinese to go along with all this?”

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