Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Economics News Story of the Year: Dickens Meets Hayek in a Mumbai Slum

My one-man committee has met and made a decision: The award for best economics news story of the year goes to Jim Yardley of The New York Times for an article titled “In One Slum, Misery, Work, Politics and Hope,” published in the December 29 issue.
It is a story about Dharavi, Mumbai’s most famous slum, a seething hive where perhaps as many as a million people live in 60,000 structures on an area smaller than central park. Not surprisingly, in every alley, there are scenes of appalling poverty: Read more>>>

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Choral Singing, Malpractice, Italy: More Links for Your Classroom

  • Most economists are familiar with the distinction between coordination via spontaneous order and coordination via hierarchy. (See, e.g., discussion in Ch. 1 of my textbook.) In the real world, coordination often involves a mix of the two. This post from Lynne Kiesling of The Knowledege Problem  illustrates the coordination issue with the example of choral singing. If you scroll down the comments, you will see one I have added.
  • The euro crisis is not about tiny Greece, Ireland, or Portugal; it is about Italy. Italy is not only too big to fail, it is too big to rescue. In this post from Economonitor Ed Hugh digs deep into the Italian problem and explains why the euro's ultimate fate will depend on whether Italy can pull itself out of the very deep hole it is in. Hint: Government finance is only part of the story.
  • Everyone agrees it would be good to slow the runaway growth of medical costs, but where to attack the problem? Conservatives often single out the need to reign in excessive medical malpractice suits. Others dismiss malpractice as a minor problem, citing data that malpractice legal costs and awards amount to only 2.4 percent of medical spending. This interesting post from the NY Times by Pauline W. Chen, M.C., a practicing physician, explains that the damage done to the medical system by excessive malpractice suits may be far greater than the measured 2.4 percent if one takes into account the way doctors respond to the fear of malpractice claims.

Friday, December 23, 2011

US GDP: Can We Blame the Grinch for Yet Another Downward Revision of Growth?

The third estimate of US real GDP for Q3 2011 brought yet another downward revision. Can we blame the Grinch who Stole Christmas?

GDP is now reported to have grown at an estimated 1.8% annual rate in Q3 2011, less than the 2.0% second estimate released in November and less still than the 2.5% preliminary estimate reported in October Although slowing, the July-September 2011 quarter was the 9th consecutive quarter of growth since the end of the recession that lasted from Dec 2007 to Jun 2009.

Even after the revision, Q3 GDP was still above its pre-recession peak reached in Q4 2007, although only by a razor-thin 0.04%. According to standard business cycle terminology, the recession phase of the business cycle is the downward movement of GDP from its previous peak. The recovery phase is the upward movement from the trough (low point) of the recession and continues until GDP again reaches its previous peak. Once GDP moves above its previous peak, the expansion phase begins. The revised Q3 data still suggest that after a recovery of 2 years duration, the expansion phase has now begun.

Consumption was revised downward but still accounted for much of the growth in Q3. Investment was revised up to weakly positive compared with the negative number in last month’s second estimate. Federal government defense spending grew but was offset by continued decline of federal nondefense spending and state and local government spending. Exports grew even more strongly than previously reported, but they were offset by an upward revision of imports (a negative entry in the GDP accounts).

The revised growth of nominal GDP (NGDP) was 3.9% in Q3. NGDP growth consisted of 1.8% real growth and 2.1% inflation. An increasing number of economists focus on NGDP growth as a key policy target. Over the long run, NGDP growth of about 4.5% would allow real GDP to track its potential level with about 2% inflation. The Q3 NGDP growth of 3.9% suggests that the gap between actual and potential GDP that opened during the recession continued to widen.

Follow this link to view or download a classroom-ready slideshow presentation of the latest GDP data

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Linking Keystone XL to the Payroll Tax Only Shows Why we Need a Real Energy Policy

The administration is coming under increasing pressure to accelerate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry increased U.S. imports of bitumen from Canadian oil sands. The latest form of pressure is a Senate bill that would fast-track KXL in exchange for a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and other items. After some resistance, it now appears the House will go along with the proposal. It is a bad idea. READ MORE>>>

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Latest Price Data Show US on Brink of Deflation as World Economy Slows

The most widely watched U.S. inflation indicator, the seasonally adjusted all-items CPI for urban consumers, fell in November at an annual rate of 0.23 percent. The decrease was small enough that it will hit the headlines as no change, based on the rounded monthly data reported in the press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (All inflation data in this post are month-to-month changes stated as annual rates, based on the three-decimal version of the data released by the Cleveland Fed.) November marked the second consecutive month of negative inflation, following a decrease of 0.96 percent in October. >>>Read more

Follow this link to view or download the latest inflation charts and data in slideshow format

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Huger Rises in American Cities and Other Links for Your Econ Classroom

  • The US Conference of Mayors has released a new report that shows increased hunger and homelessness in U.S. cities. Unemployment is the leading cause of both, but many hungry and some homeless are employed. (For more on the relationship between poverty and labor market conditions, type "poverty" in the search box on this blog)
  • It's hard to keep up with the fast-changing situation in Europe, so now and then I like to give a link to a piece that summarizes the situation well for those who can't read everything. Tim Duy's post in today's Economonitor fits that pattern. Duy explains why the euro has deep-rooted structural problems that are not addressed by the latest Franco-German plan. "I don't see where this ends well," concludes Duy. (BTW, Duy also spikes the rumor that the Fed is about to rescue European banks.)
  • While the crisis in Europe has attracted the most attention, China is having its problems, too. Here are two good posts to keep up to date on the China scene. In the first, Michael Pettis explains just how we know that China is overinvesting. In this next one, Patrick Chovanec provides the latest data on the collapse of China's housing bubble.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What do the Russian Protesters Want? One Observer’s View of Problems and Needed Reforms

Commentators have compared the recent Russian protests to those of Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. There are differences, of course, but certain similarities stand out. For one thing, these recent movements differ from, say, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, in that none of them has a clear leader. Instead, they have coalesced around negatives: Egypt without Mubarek, Russian without Putin, America without Wall Street. They all see the existing political system as corrupt, but they are much less specific about what should replace it.

Although these movements may lack leaders, they do not lack thinkers and opinion makers whose writings provide useful insights into what the protesters want. This post looks at the views of one Russian opposition figure, the journalist and writer Yulia Latynina, as expressed in a recent essay titled “Russian Baker, or Ownerocracy.” READ MORE>>>

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can New Fiscal Rules Save the Euro? Three Details to Watch For

Yesterday  Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy announced a new set of fiscal rules, their latest idea to save the euro.  The new rules would replace the unworkable Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), which mandates a deficit of no more than 3 percent of GDP and debt of no more than 60 percent of GDP. Yesterday’s announcement was short on specifics, but here are three crucial things to watch for that will determine whether the new rules will have any chance of working. READ MORE>>>

Monday, December 5, 2011

China is Overinvesting in Electric Cars and Other Links to Eliven Your Econ Course

  • The US government has been roundly criticized for its investment in Solyndra's failed solar panel venture, yet many people think the Chinese government is oh-so-clever when it pours money into "economy of the future" investments of its own. Think again. Governments everywhere are prone to pouring money into the sand. This excellent long post by Michael Pettis explains how the Chinese government has overinvested in the electric car industry and in other sectors as well.
  • Defender's of Wall Street often defend princely salaries by arguing that a highly efficient U.S. financial sector is adding hugely to the strength of the economy. This nice piece of research by NYU's Thomas Phillippon blows that argument out of the water. It argues that financial sector costs are rising faster than its output, and that the resulting loss of productivity is a drag on the economy at large, not a boost. The comparison of productivity-enhancing IT investment in retail trade with productivity-sapping IT investment in the financial sector is especially interesting.
  • Last week the stock market got a boost when the Fed announced it would lower the interest rate charged to loan dollars to European banks. Every wonder why European banks need dollars? This report by Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times explains some of the reasons.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

US Employment Data: Stronger November Report Shows Economy Struggling to Resist Global Weakness

The latest employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows stronger, but still moderate, job growth for November. The unemployment rate fell to 8.6 percent, its lowest since March 2009. On the whole, the report shows a U.S. economy struggling to resist being dragged down by even weaker economies in Europe and Japan, and by a still strong but slowing China.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Afghanistan's Economic Future, Aid, and the Curse of Riches

We hear a lot about the future of Afghanistan after NATO withdrawal in 2014. Most of the speculation focuses on security and politics. Too little of it concerns economics. A pair of new reports, one from the World Bank and the other from the IMF, help fill the gap. If you thought the security and political prognosis was problematic, wait until you read what lies ahead for the country’s economy. READ MORE>>>

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ed Hugh on the Euro and Other Links to Enliven Your Econ Course

If you don't have time to read everything about the teetering euro, read Ed Hugh's excellent summary in "Last Days of Pompeii" from Economonitor. Hugh shows that many countries share the problems of the euro (excessive public and private debt, aging populations, competition from emerging economies), but the euro is getting hit first and worst.

All of us want to work behavioral economics into our courses these days. Here's a great behavioral econ reading list from Cheap Talk that will help.

If you want to get a good discussion going on consumerism and the environment, show your students this ad from Patagonia, "Don't Buy This Jacket," and the commentary by Mark Gunther.

Follow me on Twitter @dolanecon to get more links like these to enliven your econ courses.

Friday, November 25, 2011

US GDP Data: Downward Revision of Q3 GDP Strengthens Case for Stimulus

The second estimate of U.S. GDP for the third quarter of 2011 shows a downward revision, making the real growth rate 2 percent rather than the 2.5 percent reported in last month’s preliminary estimate. The slowing growth rate makes the expansion look weaker than before and strengthens the case for new stimulus. >>>READ MORE

Follow this link to view or download the latest GDP charts ready for classroom presentation

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thoma on Taxing the Rich vs. Growth and Other Links to Enliven Your Econ Course

Mark Thoma offers his opinion as to Why America Should Spread the Wealth: "If those at the top of the income distribution receive far more than the value of what they create, and those at lower income levels receive less, then one way to correct this, at least in part, is to increase taxes at the upper end of the income distribution and use the proceeds to protect important social programs that benefit working-class households, programs that are currently threatened by budget deficits." He acknowledges, however, that beyond a point, there may be a tradeoff between achieving greater equality through taxation, on the one hand, and stimulating growth, on the other. My thought: Greater emphasis should be placed on the difference between raising marginal tax rates on the rich (for example, by letting the Bush tax cuts expire) and undertaking true tax reform. The latter would eliminate loopholes and cut tax rates in a way that simultaneously raised average tax rates on upper-income households while cutting their marginal tax rates. Such a policy could promote both growth and equality, while achieving fiscal consolidation at the same time. (For more on growth-friendly fiscal consolidation, see this earlier post.)

In a recent post on Economonitor, Paolo Manasse and Giulio Trigilia provide evidence that markets are now perceiving a general euro risk rather than confining the perception of risks to just a few countries. They argue that Italy's weak fundamentals, which cannot be cured by a simple change of government, lie behind the emergence of generalized euro risk.

Scott Sumner, drawing on work by Timothy Taylor, calculates that the Transport Safety Administration is killing 100 people (equivalent to the crash of a medium-sized airliner) every month. That happens because longer waiting times at airport security since 9/11 divert a large amount of traffic to the highways, where fatalities per passenger mile are far higher than for commercial air travel.

Follow me on Twitter @dolanecon to get more links like these to enliven your econ courses.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Technical Barriers to Leaving the Euro and Learning from Others’ Experience

When discussion turns to the possibility that some country might leave the euro, much is often made of the technical difficulties of introducing a new currency, especially of the months, even years, of planning that went into launching the euro in the first place. Sample: “Computers will have to be reprogrammed. Vending machines will have to be modified. Payment machines will have to be serviced to prevent motorists from being trapped in subterranean parking garages. Notes and coins will have to be positioned around the country.” (Joshua Chaffin in the Financial Times, quoting a 2007 paper by Barry Eichengreen.)

Yes, there would be technical difficulties. Still, lots of countries have switched currencies in the past. Sometimes the process has been planned and orderly, sometimes messy and chaotic. One way or another, the job gets done. Anyone who thinks technical problems pose insurmountable barriers needs to look at the imaginative, pragmatic devices that other countries have used to ease the transition from one currency to another. Here are three lessons from other countries’ experiences  that would be relevant to anyone now making plans to leave the euro. READ MORE>>>

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

US Inflation Data: Moderate October CPI Data Give Fed Room to Maneuver in Face of Euro Crisis

US inflation pressures continued to ease in October, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the struggling US economy facing headwinds from the euro crisis, low inflation gives the Fed a welcome extra bit of room to maneuver.

The headline CPI actually fell at a 1 percent rate during October.  (All inflation rates given in this post are seasonally adjusted monthly changes stated as annual rates.)  Energy prices were the main factor driving headline inflation downward. Negative inflation is unlikely to persist, however, given that world oil prices have already pushed back over $100 a barrel this week.

Core inflation remained moderate in October, rising just slightly to a 1.7 percent annual rate. Apparel prices and prices of medical goods and services helped pull the core rate up a bit from September’s 0.6 percent, which was the low for the year. READ MORE>>>

Follow this link to view or download a classroom-ready slideshow including the latest inflation charts and analysis.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Understanding the New View of Poverty (2): What Helps and What Hurts

Last week, the Census Bureau published a new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) that changes our understanding of poverty in America. The first installment of this post looked at the way it erodes our stereotypes of who is poor, especially by showing that there are more poor white, working-age, home-owning Americans than we thought. No matter what population group or political party you belong too, it is now harder to dismiss income insecurity as something that threatens only people who are not like you. This installment turns to the issue of which government policies help reduce poverty and which policies may be making the problem worse. READ MORE>>>

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Understanding the New View of Poverty (1): The Erosion of Stereotypes

We all thought we knew who is poor in America. Children, especially in one-parent households. Racial minorities. Families who aren't able to participate in the great American dream of home ownership. Really? The Census Bureau's new Supplementary Poverty Measure (SPM) erodes all of these stereotypes. They still contain some truth, but less than it seemed. No matter who you are, you cannot dismiss income insecurity as a problem that doesn't threaten people just like you.

The news does not come without warning. The official 2010 poverty figures, released in September, already showed a record high poverty rate for working-age Americans—some 13.7 percent, up from 12.9 percent in 2009, itself a record. Now the new SPM shows that official figures understate the problem. Why, and what does it mean? READ MORE >>>>

Saturday, November 5, 2011

US Employment Data: October Job Growth Still Slow but Details Hold a Bit of Good News

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported only 80,000 new payroll jobs in October, still a very slow tempo. However, there was a bit of good news hidden in the revisions for earlier months. The August payroll job figure, originally reported as a shockingly bad zero gain, was revised upward to a more respectable 104,000. September's job growth, in turn, was revised upward from 103,000 to 158,000. Some observers believe that upward revisions are typical of a job market that is beginning to turn the corner toward growth. Optimists can hope this month's 80,000 will eventually be revised up, as well. >>>Read more

Follow this link to view or download a slideshow with the latest unemployment charts and graphs, ready for your classroom or business presentation

Thursday, November 3, 2011

NGDP Targeting is the Natural Heir to Monetarism

In a recent post, Daniel Alpert enlists Milton Friedman as an ally against the newly popular (but not new) idea of targeting nominal GDP. On the contrary, I see NGDP targeting as the natural heir to monetarist policy prescriptions of the 1960s and 70s.

If we look at the textbook version of monetarism, the point is almost trivial. Textbook monetarism begins from the equation of exchange, MV=PQ, where M is money (M1, back in the day), V is velocity, P is the price level, Q is real GDP, and PQ is NGDP. Next it adds the simplifying assumption that velocity is constant. It follows that targeting a steady rate of money growth is identical to targeting a steady rate of NGDP growth.

Of course, Friedman himself propounded a more sophisticated monetarism, one in which the linkage between monetary policy and NGDP was not so tight. He saw two sources of slippage as potential problems for a monetary growth target. READ MORE>>>

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Can Spaceship Earth Carry Seven Billion Passengers, and More to Come?

According to the United Nations, the world population will reach 7 billion people this week. No one really knows the exact date, but the announcement has sparked a round of commentary, most of it pessimistic. The doubling of the world’s population over the past 50 years is the most rapid in history. Demographers expect another 3 billion at least before global population finally peaks early in the next century and begins a gradual decline. Can we make it until then? Or will our overburdened spaceship earth suffer environmental collapse?

Population growth poses real challenges for environmental policy. The more people, the more important it is to get things right in the relationship between people and the planet. At least three issues require even closer attention as the population grows than they would with a constant population. READ MORE>>>

Thursday, October 27, 2011

US GDP Data: Growth Stronger in Q3 as Economy Enters Expansion

There was a bit of joy in yesterday’s advance estimate of U.S. Q3 GDP both for traditionalists who focus on the real value of output (RGDP) and for the growing number of economists who track the nominal value (NGDP).

Real output was reported to have grown by 2.5 percent in the quarter, a bit stronger than analysts’ expectations. That was up significantly from 1.3 percent in Q2. RGDP passed a key psychological threshold as it edged above its previous peak, which it had reached all the way back in Q4 2007. After almost two years of recession and two years of slow recovery, the economy has finally entered its expansion phase. READ MORE>>>

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Only Economists Can Save the Planet

Gernot Wagner’s But Will the Planet Notice? is the book I would like to get my neighbors to read. The ones who use canvas shopping bags, take short showers, recycle, and think that is enough. The ones who think “environmental economics” is an oxymoron. The ones who think concepts like markets, incentives, and property are the roots of our planetary problems, not the keys to solving it.

Wagner can speak to these people as a member of the same club. He is careful to point out that he, too, pays his dues—no plastic bags, no meat, no car, and a day job with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he also has a Ph.D. in environmental economics. That means that even though he may live like your average green progressive, he thinks differently. He thinks recycling is nice, but not enough, and that only economists can save the planet. READ MORE>>>

Saturday, October 22, 2011

US Inflation Data: Scant Fuel for Inflation Fears in September CPI Report

Although some observers still think the Fed's easy monetary policy risks a rise in the US inflation rate, there was scant fuel for their fears in the September inflation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The all-items CPI for urban consumers rose at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.7% in September, down almost a point from the August rate of 4.6%.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Senate’s Currency Manipulation Bill is Not Only Bad Policy, but Unnecessary

China's currency manipulation is bad policy. So is the Senate's latest crackdown on it. The bill passed yesterday is not only bad policy, but unnecessary. Here's why.

First of all, before we get hysterical about Chinese policy, we should recognize that currency manipulation is the global norm, not the exception. By a recent count, only 14 percent of the IMF's member nations allow their exchange rates to float freely. Some 58 percent manipulate their exchange rates by holding them above or below the level to which the market would move them. READ MORE>>>

Saturday, October 8, 2011

US Labor Market Data: Job Growth Moderate, Unemployment Steady in September

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the U.S. economy added 103,000 payroll jobs in September. That was the best number in five months, but is still well below the rates of job growth earlier in the recovery.

The service sector provided nearly all of the new jobs, with health care and temporary work leading the way. Goods producing sectors added just 18,000 jobs and manufacturing jobs actually fell in the month. Government jobs decreased by 34,000, continuing a steady decline.

A separate household survey that includes farm jobs and the self-employed showed that the labor force, which includes both employed and unemployed persons, grew by 423,000. Of these, 398,000 found jobs and 25,000 joined the ranks of the unemployed as soon as they started to look for work. The unemployment rate, which is the ratio of unemployed persons to the labor force, remained unchanged at 9.1 percent for the third month in a row.

The BLS also calculates a broader measure of unemployment called U-6. The numerator of U-6 includes the officially unemployed, plus persons marginally attached to the labor force who would like to work but are not looking because they think there is no work, plus part-time workers who would prefer full-time work, but can't find it. The denominator includes the labor force plus the marginally attached. U-6 increased from 16.2 to 16.5 percent in September, its fifth increase in the past six months.

Another important labor market indicator, the employment-population ratio, increased slightly in September, but remained just above its all-time low reached in July. The long decline in the employment-population ratio primarily reflects an aging population, but cyclical factors, like more discouraged workers, have also kept this indicator at a low level.

Follow this link to view or download a short classroom-ready slideshow with graphical presentations of the main employment indicators.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What the Wall Street Protesters Want: An Economic Commentary on the "Contract for the American Dream."

Nearly every news story I read about the occupation of Wall Street begins by saying that the protesters are vague about what they want. Even Paul Krugman, who is supportive of the demonstrations, complains in today's New York TImes about a lack of specific policy demands. Maybe that is a valid critique of individual protestors, but if you look instead at what some of their sponsoring organizations say the protest is about, you get a different picture—one that is not only more specific but often makes surprisingly good economic sense. READ MORE>>>

Sunday, October 2, 2011

How Gordon Brown Saved Britain from the Euro and Why that Makes him a Hero

In his new book, Alistair Darling describes Gordon Brown's political style as "appalling," "volcanic," and "brutal." He should know. The two men sat together in the cabinet for years while Brown was chancellor. Darling then served as chancellor himself when Brown finally became prime minister. Now that Brown is out of office, it seems he has few political friends left. Still, his successors should erect a statue to him, for one accomplishment if nothing else: He saved Britain from the euro. Here's why that makes him a hero.

The story starts back in 1997, when Tony Blair was new to the job of prime minister. The euro was still three years away from realization, but already Blair was an enthusiast. Brown was skeptical, but he had a problem. Political solidarity required him to support the euro in principle, but his stronger sense of economic reality made him realize that it was a bad idea for the UK. His solution was to endorse the euro subject to the following five tests, which together were vague enough and tough enough that they could never be fully met: >>>READ MORE

Thursday, September 29, 2011

US GDP Data: Growth for Q2 2011 Revised Upward, But Still Weak

U.S. GDP growth for the second quarter of 2011 was revised upward to a 1.3 percent annual rate from the 1.0 percent second estimate reported last month. The upward revision, which returned GDP growth to the same rate as the advance estimate released in July, was a relief to some observers, even though it was still very weak . About 2.5 percent growth is generally considered necessary to keep unemployment from rising, when growth of the labor force is taken into account.

Although a recovery has been underway for two years, the level of U.S. real GDP has not yet reached its peak level of mid-2007, before the recession. When GDP finally reaches its previous peak, the economy will have been considered to make the transition from the recovery phase of the business cycle to the expansion phase.

Investment remained a relative bright spot in the GDP data, accounting for .79 percentage points of the 1.3 percent growth in the quarter. Business fixed investment was relatively strong while housing investment remained weak. Consumption grew by about 0.49 percentage points, with personal expenditures on healthcare services leading the way. The government sector contracted. Federal defense expenditures rose, but they were more than offset by decreases in federal nondefense spending and in state and local government purchases. Net exports performed better than previously estimated. Exports were revised upward and imports downward compared with the August report.

Follow this link to view or download a set of classroom-ready slides with graphical presentations of the latest GDP estimates.

Natural Gas Flaring, Carbon Taxes, and the Risk of Alien Invasion

To an alien orbiting Earth in a flying saucer, natural gas flares would be one of the most visible signs of human life on earth. Notice I said "human life," not "intelligent life."

Flaring is the practice of burning off the natural gas that is produced in association with oil rather than piping it to market, using it at the wellhead, or reinjecting into the ground. Flaring was once common, but in more recent times, it has largely been limited to places like Russia and Nigeria. Now, though, it is becoming a big source of controversy in the United States. According to a recent New York Times article, some 30 percent of natural gas produced from rapidly expanding North Dakota oil fields will be flared this year—more than enough to heat every home in North Dakota through the state's harsh winters. Elsewhere in this country, less than one percent of gas is flared. READ MORE>>>

For more environmental topics, check out my new book, TANSTAAFL: A Libertarian Perspective on Environmental Economics.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The UBS-Adoboli Scandal Shows the Problem of Negatively-Skewed Risk is Still With Us

In my banking courses, I point to negatively skewed trading strategies as a key cause of the crash of 2008. The recent loss of more than $2 billion attributed to rogue trades by Kweku Adoboli at Swiss banking giant UBS shows that the problem of negatively skewed risk is still with us. It is an old story, but with a new twist.

The problem of negatively skewed risk arises from the way incentives change when you gamble with someone else's money. >>>Read more

Friday, September 16, 2011

US Inflation Data: Headline CPI Inflation Slows, Core Inflation Up a Bit in August

The Consumer Price Index for all items purchased by U.S. urban consumers rose at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.6 percent in August, somewhat slower than the July rate of 6.2%. Gasoline and food prices added significantly to inflation in August, as in the previous month.

Food and energy prices are highly volatile and account for much of the month-to month variation in the CPI. Their effect can be removed by taking the food and energy components out of the CPI. The result,  called the core inflation rate, was 2.97 in August, slightly faster than in July.

Another way to remove volatility from the CPI series is the 16 percent trimmed mean CPI published by the Cleveland Fed. That index removes the 8 percent of prices that increase most and the 8 percent that increase least each month, whether they are energy, food, or something else. In July trimmed-mean inflation rose slightly. At 3.6 percent, it remained slightly above core inflation, as it has for most of the year.

There is no "right" and "wrong" way to measure inflation. Each index answers a somewhat different question. Economists often look at the core or trimmed mean measures to judge the effects of monetary policy. The all-items CPI includes food and energy prices that are set in global markets, beyond direct control of domestic policy.

Although inflation is beginning to rise, it is not yet a great cause for concern. The Fed does not set an explicit target rate for inflation, but it tends to view 2 percent inflation as consistent with prudent monetary policy in the long run. After slowing to a crawl during the recession, headline inflation is now running about 3 percent on a year-on-year basis, while core measures have not yet reached the 2 percent threshold.

Follow this link to view or download a set of classroom-ready slides with graphical presentation of inflation data.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

US Working-Age Poverty Hits a Record High: What it Means for the Budget Debate

Adding to the gloom from recent labor market data, the Census Bureau reported today that the poverty rate among working-age Americans hit a record high in 2010. Last year some 13.7 percent of the U.S. population aged 18-64 years fell below the poverty threshold of $22,314 for a family of four. That was up from 12.9 percent in 2009, also a record. The Bureau has reported working-age poverty figures since 1966, at which time the rate was 10.5 percent. Read the full post>>>

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Truth About Taxes: What are Our Choices?

This post is an abbreviated version of a recent presentation to the League of Women Voters of San Juan County, Washington. You will find a link to the slideshow version at the end of the post.
The question we most often hear about taxes is, are they too high, or too low? The answer to both questions is YES. How can that be?

Taxes are too high in the sense that they distort the decisions made by households and businesses. At the same time, they are too low in the sense that they do not bring in enough revenue to pay for government as we know it. We cannot continue to operate the government that way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why Rolling Back Environmental Protection is the Wrong Fix for Jobs

Originally published on Economonitor.com.

Just when it seemed nothing could do it, persistently high U.S. unemployment has produced bipartisan agreement in Washington—agreement to roll back environmental protection in an attempt to save jobs and create new ones.

The White House, shrugging off off environmentalist opposition, has quashed a major EPA initiative that would have strengthened ozone regulations and is reportedly leaning toward endorsement of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry petroleum from Canadian oil sands. Republicans have applauded and issued their own list of proposals, including rollbacks of regulations for coal ash, farm dust, greenhouse gasses, and cement plants, among others.

None of this is good news, either for the environment or the economy. Rolling back environmental regulations is the wrong way to fix the jobs problem. Here's why.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Data for the Classroom: No New Payroll Jobs in August

Private payroll job growth for August was zero, the worst showing since since September 2010. Adding to the gloom, the job growth numbers for May and June were revised downward by a total of 52,000 jobs. Private nonfarm jobs increased by a slim 17,000 but that gain was offset by a loss of 17,000 government jobs.

The labor force, which includes both employed and unemployed persons, grew by 366,000. Of these 331,000 found jobs and 35,000 were added to the officially unemployed as soon as they started looking for work. The unemployment rate, which is the ratio of unemployed persons to the labor force, remained unchanged at 9.1 percent.
The unemployment rate is based on a survey of households. It uses a different methodology than the payroll job report, which is based on a survey of employers. Among other things, the household survey includes farm workers and self-employed persons. It is not unusual for the two surveys to point in different directions in any given month, as was the case in August.

The government also calculates a broader measure of unemployment called U-6. The numerator of U-6 includes unemployed persons, marginally attached persons who would like to work but are not looking because they think there are no jobs, and part-time workers who would prefer full-time work but can’t find it. The denominator includes the labor force plus the marginally attached. A shorter average work week led to an increase in involuntary part-time workers and caused U-6 to rise in August.

The employment to population ratio ticked up to 58.2 percent, just above the all-time low reached in July. The long decline in the ratio reflects several factors, including slow job growth; more discouraged workers, who do not look for jobs because they think none are available; and more retired persons as the population ages. For a full discussion of the trend in the employment to population ration, see this earlier post.





Follow this link to view or download a set of classroom-ready slides with graphical presentation of the latest unemployment data.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How Germany Free-Rides on the Euro

For years, I have warned my European students of the fiscal free-rider problem built into the structure of the euro area. My examples have always been fiscally undisciplined peripheral governments seeking political gain by running budget deficits at the expense of their euro partners. Now, though, as the debate unfolds over measures to cope with the European sovereign debt crisis, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Germany, the long-time locomotive of the euro, is also, in its own way, free-riding on the common currency.

The free-rider problem arises whenever someone is able to capture the full benefits of an action while shifting all or part of the the costs to others. I introduce the concept to my students with the example of ten friends eating dinner in a restaurant. If they know they will get separate checks at the end of the meal, they all order hamburgers and beer. If they know there will be one check, to be split equally among everyone at the table, they order steak and champagne.

In the case of  deficit-prone peripheral members of the euro, individual governments capture the full economic and political benefits of fiscal stimulus while shifting part of the costs to other euro members. This happens in two ways. Read more>>>

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Already Weak, US GDP Growth in Q2 2011 is Revised Downward

U.S. GDP growth for the second quarter of 2011 was revised downward to a 1 percent annual rate from the 1.3 percent advance estimate reported last month. The downward revision disappointed many observers. About 2.5 percent growth is generally considered necessary to keep unemployment from rising, when growth of the labor force is taken into account.

Although a recovery has been underway for two years, the level of U.S. real GDP has not yet reached its peak level of mid-2007, before the recession. When GDP finally reaches its previous peak, the economy will have been considered to make the transition from the recovery phase of the business cycle to the expansion phase.

About three-quarters of the growth of GDP was attributable to investment, mostly business fixed investment. Housing investment remained weak. Consumption grew by about 0.3 percentage points. The government sector contracted, with slight growth of federal government activity more than offset by falling state and local government purchases. Net exports barely edged up, with moderately strong export growth almost fully offset by growth of imports.

Follow this link to view or download a set of classroom-ready slides with graphical presentations of the latest GDP estimates.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why Rick Perry's Position on Climate Change Makes Him a True Conservative

Rick Perry is a climate-change skeptic. Sure, he says, the world is getting warmer, but the climate has often changed. He doesn't buy in to the idea that human activity has an effect on the current warming trend. Friedrich Hayek would say that makes him a true conservative.
Hayek liked to view the political spectrum not as a left-to-right line with socialist and conservative poles, but as a triangle. Conservatives were at one corner, socialists at another, and liberals at the third. The terminology has changed a little since Hayek's time. Conservatives are still conservatives, but, at least in the United States, those on the left now prefer to identify themselves as progressives rather than socialists. Most of those who, in Hayek's time and before, called themselves liberals, today prefer to identify themselves as libertarians, or sometimes, classical liberals.
In a famous essay "Why I Am Not  Conservative," Hayek identified a number of characteristic tenets of conservatism, including:
  • Habitual resistance to change, hence the term “conservative."
  • A claim to self-arrogated superior wisdom in place of rational argument.
  • A propensity to reject scientific knowledge because of the consequences that seem to follow from it.
  • Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic and social change.
All of these tenets feed into Perry's views on climate change. He resists any change to an American path of economic development based on cheap, carbon-intensive energy; a path economists sometimes call extensive as opposed to intensive growth. He proudly claims superiority of faith-based wisdom over rational argument. And, especially in the case of climate change, he is quick to reject scientific knowledge. Read more >>>

Monday, August 8, 2011

US Employment-Population Ratio Hits a New Low: Why It Matters for the Budget Debate

By and large, U.S. media have spun the July employment report as more positive than negative. The 117,000 new payroll jobs created last month and the upward revisions for May and June were a relief after two months of very bad data. The downtick in the unemployment rate, although slight, was also welcome. One indicator that rarely makes the headlines told a different story, however. The employment-population ratio fell to a new low of 58.1 percent. What does it mean? Why should we care?

We should care, because the sinking employment-population ratio has big implications for the budget debate. The cuts-only faction of budget balancers are demanding a cap on federal government spending at 18% of GDP. They tout that as a level we lived with happily in the past, and should therefore be happy to live with in the future. The trouble is, the future isn't going to be like the past. The smaller the fraction of the population that is working, the harder it becomes to put the country's fiscal affairs in order. That becomes even clearer if we take a closer look at the reasons the ratio is falling. Read More >>>

Friday, August 5, 2011

Data for the Classroom: US Labor Market Shows Slight Improvement in July

The U.S. labor market showed a slight improvement in July, if only in comparison to the very dismal June numbers.

The closely-watched figure for non-farm payroll employment showed a gain of 117,000 jobs. Private sector jobs increased across a broad range of sectors, but those gains were offset by continued declines in the state and local governments, which lost 37,000 jobs in the month. There was some good news in the form of an upward revision of very weak preliminary numbers reported earlier for May and June. May job gains were revised upward from 25,000 to 53,000 and June from 18,000 to 46,000.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Data for the Classroom: Weak Q2 GDP Growth, Downward Revisions

It is hard to find a good way to spin the latest US GDP data. The economy grew at an estimated 1.3% annual rate in Q2 2011. Although the January-March 2011 quarter was the 8th consecutive quarter of growth since the end of the recession that lasted from Dec 2007 to Jun 2009, the growth rate of 1.3% disappointed many observers. About 2.5% is needed to keep unemployment from rising, when increases in the labor force and productivity are taken into account.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Smart Fiscal Rules Keep Sweden's Budget in Balance

Almost three decades ago, Herbert Stein, the former Chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisors, lamented that the United States had no long-run budget policy—no policy for the size of deficits and for the rate of growth of the public debt over a period of years. He pointed out that Congress makes annual budget decisions that are wholly inconsistent with professed long-term goals, hoping that something will happen before a point of crisis is reached. He might have added that when the crisis does arrive, it is resolved by a combination of hasty, one-off measures; the making of promises that are rarely kept; and the appointment of special commissions whose advice is rarely heeded.


What Stein said then remains true today. The rational way out of this destructive cycle of irresponsibility and crisis is to establish long-term fiscal policy rules and stick to them. There is at least a vague recognition among some members of Congress of the need to do so. The problem is that the rules they actually propose are primitive and counterproductive. The debt ceiling itself, which Congress routinely sets at levels that are inconsistent with its own spending and taxing decisions, is one such rule. The balanced budget amendment championed by many fiscal conservatives is also deeply flawed, for reasons detailed in this earlier post.

Instead of these "dumb" fiscal policy rules, we need to be looking at what can be learned from countries that have faced the same problems and introduced smarter rules to overcome them. Last week's post examined how intelligent budget rules have helped Chile prosper. Today we look at the smart fiscal rules that have put Sweden's budget on a sustainable path and made that country's economy one of the strongest in Europe. READ MORE>>>

Monday, July 25, 2011

How Intelligent Budget Rules Help Chile Prosper: Lessons for the US

As everyone knows who has followed the current budget debate, U.S. fiscal policy needs more than a quick fix. It needs budget rules to put the debt and deficit on trajectories that are sustainable in the long run. Where better to look for workable rules than to countries that have done things right? Chile, which has managed to prosper under an intelligent set of budget rules, is a good place to start. READ MORE>>>

Friday, July 15, 2011

Is a 56.2 MPG Fuel Economy Standard Really a Good Idea?

 According to news reports, the Obama administration is talking to automakers about raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for passenger cars to 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025, more than double the  27.5 MPG in force for the 20 years up to 2010. Economists, even those like myself who favor policies to reduce fuel use, have argued that CAFE standards are a bad idea. Has anything changed to make stricter fuel economy standards look better now than in the past?

The fundamental problem with CAFE standards is that they attack the negative externalities of motor fuel use (pollution, national security concerns, highway congestion, accidents) only partially and indirectly. As a result, the cost of achieving a given reduction in fuel use via CAFE standards is higher than it would be if the same result were achieved more directly through an increase in the federal gasoline tax.

To understand why, we need to consider the various ways consumers can cut back on fuel use. In the short run, they they can buy an efficient hybrid instead of a gas-guzzling SUV, they can reduce discretionary driving, or they can shift some trips from their Ford F-250 to their Honda, if they happen to have one of each in the driveway. Given more time to adjust, they can make work and lifestyle changes like moving closer to public transportation, work and shopping, changing jobs, or working at home.

Higher fuel prices directly affect all of these choices. They encourage people to make whatever marginal adjustments best suit their circumstances. A recent New York Times article gave these examples of how people were reacting as gasoline approached $4 per gallon in May, 2011:
  • An upstate New York customer relations manager moved to a new apartment that cut her daily commute from 50 miles to 8 miles. She preferred that to trading her beloved truck for a low-mileage vehicle.
  • Traffic on San Francisco's bridges fell while ridership on buses and ferries rose.
  • New York-based Topical BioMedics switched to cloud computing to make it more convenient for employees to work from home.
  • A Los Angeles hair products business found more workers taking advantage of a long-standing offer of a 20-cent per mile bonus for car pooling.

The problem with higher CAFE standards is that they encourage fuel saving only with regard to the choice of what car to buy. Once a consumer buys a low-mileage vehicle, the cost of driving and extra mile goes down, thereby reducing the incentive for fuel-saving measures like moving closer to work, working at home, riding the bus to work, or consolidating errands.

The tendency of more fuel-efficient vehicles to induce additional driving is known as the "rebound effect." For example, suppose that the elasticity of demand for driving with respect to fuel-cost per mile is -0.3. That means a 10% increase in fuel efficiency would cause a 3 percent increase in driving. The increased miles driven would partly offset the increase in miles per gallon, so that total fuel consumption would decrease by only about 7%.

Even taking the rebound effect into account, higher CAFE standards are still somewhat helpful in reducing those externalities that are proportional to the quantities of fuel consumed, including externalities of pollution and national security. However, the rebound effect causes an absolute increase in those externalities that are proportional to miles driven, including road congestion and traffic accidents. It also increases the cost of road maintenance, because the wear and tear from more miles driven is only partly offset by the lower average weight of high-mileage vehicles.

The very fuel-saving strategies that CAFE standards discourage, like moving closer to work or consolidating errands, are often the ones that have the lowest costs. That is why the total cost of reaching a given national fuel-saving target will be greater when achieved through CAFE standards than when induced by an increase in fuel taxes. A 2004 study from the Congressional Budget Office concluded that an increase in the federal gasoline tax would achieve a given reduction in fuel economy at a cost 27 percent less than that of an equivalent tightening of CAFE standards. Furthermore, its effects would be felt more quickly, because they would not have to wait for the gradual turnover of the national motor vehicle fleet. Over the 14-year time horizon of the CBO study, the gas tax increase would save 42 percent more total fuel.

The variable most critical to the size of the rebound effect, and therefore to the relative merits of CAFE standards vs. fuel taxes, is the price-elasticity of demand for fuel. The less elastic is demand, the stronger is the case for CAFE standards; the more elastic, the larger the rebound effect and the stronger the case for raising fuel taxes. So what do we know about price elasticity?

Of all the many elasticity studies, the most widely cited is a 1996 meta-analysis by Molly Espey. She concluded that the best estimate for the price elasticity of gasoline demand was -0.26 in the short run and -0.58 in the long run. Those estimates strongly undermine the case for CAFE standards. However, Espey's results, which are based on data from 1936 through 1986, have been challenged by more recent estimates that show a decrease in elasticity in the early years of the 21st century.

In particular, a 2006 NBER working paper by Jonathan E. Hughes, Christopher R. Knittel, and Daniel Sperling found evidence that the short-run price elasticity of gasoline for the period 2001-2006 had fallen to a range of -0.034 to -0.077. That finding would seem to strengthen the case for higher CAFE standards.
The authors of the NBER study suggest several reasons that the elasticity of demand for fuel may have fallen during the period studied. One is that the real price of gasoline and its share in household budgets was below its historical average in those years. A second possible reason is that suburban sprawl and longer commuting distances meant that a lower proportion of all driving was discretionary. A third explanation was that after more than a decade in which CAFE standards had remained unchanged at 27.5 MPG, there were fewer opportunities for saving fuel by trading in an older car for a new one or shifting driving from one car to another within the family fleet.

But not so fast. Still more recent studies seem to show that the factors at work in 2001-2006 were temporary, and that after hitting a low, elasticity is on the rise again. A study by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, released just last month, provides a comprehensive review of the literature. His conclusion is that long-run fuel price elasticities have returned to a range of -0.4 to -0.8. In Litman's view, the rebound of the rebound effect (as he puts it) has occurred in part because rising fuel prices and stagnating incomes have once more increased the share of fuel costs in consumer budgets. Also, as a larger share of the population reaches retirement, a higher percentage of driving becomes discretionary, and therefore more sensitive to fuel prices.

It is worth noting that much of the observed variation in fuel prices on which the elasticity studies draw are market-driven, and therefore expected by consumers to be transitory. Elasticity is not only likely to be higher in the long run than in the short run, but also higher in response to changes in fuel prices that are expected to be permanent, such as those that would result from tax increases. The expectation effect would be even greater under a variable, price-smoothing oil tax of the type discussed in this earlier post. Such a tax would put a permanent floor under retail gasoline prices, providing maximum incentive to make the behavioral changes needed for long-run fuel economy. The effectiveness of higher fuel prices in mitigating externalities of automobile use would greater still if they were backed up by modern, time-of-day pricing policies for road use and parking, as well.

To be sure, not everyone will be convinced by elasticity studies. They are just numbers. Some people will continue to believe that prices have no effect on driving behavior, that people will just drive whatever and wherever they want regardless. Here is a picture, then, that is worth a thousand meta-analyses. Taken from the Litman study cited above, it shows a convincingly tight relationship between fuel prices and fuel use across OECD countries. Can it really be just coincidence that the United States, with the lowest fuel prices, also has the highest fuel consumption?



All this leaves one last question. If CAFE standards are such a bad idea, why do they remain so popular? If you are an economist, choosing higher fuel taxes over CAFE standards looks like a no-brainer, but if you are a politician, fuel taxes have an obvious drawback. Fuel taxes make the cost of reducing consumption highly visible. You see the big dollars-per-gallon number right there in front of you every time you drive up to the pump. CAFE standards, in contrast, hide the cost. You pay the price of a higher-mileage car only when you buy a new one, and even then, the part of the price attributable to the mileage-enhancing features is not broken out as a separate item on the sticker. You may notice that your new car costs more than your old one did, but there are lots of other reasons for that besides fuel economy.

It is a classic case of the TANSTAAFL principle—There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If you try to make something look like it’s free, it only ends up costing more in the long run. If you are a politician, you may well prefer a big hidden cost to a small visible cost. If you're a friend of the environment, you should know better.

Originally posted at Economonitor.com
 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yes, the US Needs Budget Rules, but Not Hatch-Lee

Sometimes the United States is slow to join a global trend. Fiscal policy rules are a case in point. Economists love the idea of rules that decouple tax and spending policies from short-term politics and focus instead on long-term growth and sustainability. Such rules used to be rare; as recently as 1990, they were in effect in only 7 countries, according to an IMF survey. By 2009, the number had grown to 90. Aside from failed attempts like the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985, the United States has been missing from the list.

It won't be missing for long if Utah Senators Orin Hatch and Mike Lee have their way. They are pushing a set of budget rules in their Hatch-Lee Balanced Budget Amendment, which was introduced on March 31 with the backing of the entire Senate Republican delegation. Just this week, Senator Lee gave it added momentum by including it in his Cap, Cut and Balance Act. That new proposal would require the Hatch-Lee amendment to be passed, along with a set of short-term cuts and caps, before the debt ceiling could be raised.

Linking long-term rules to a short-term increase in the budget ceiling is an excellent idea. The IMF cites several examples, from Sweden to Bulgaria to New Zealand, where a fiscal crisis provided the impetus for the adoption of successful budget rules. But is Hatch-Lee the right kind of rule? Unfortunately it is not.

Follow this link to read the full post on Ed Dolan's Econ Blog at Economonitor.com
 

Data for the Classroom: US Unemployment Rises in June

 U.S. job growth slowed again in June. Although total payroll jobs increased for the ninth straight month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a disappointing total increase of just 18,000. At the same time, the May figure was revised down from 54,000 new jobs to just 25,000. An increase of 57,000 private nonfarm jobs was offset by a loss of 39,000 government jobs. Jobs decreased at all levels of government, federal, state and local.

Friday, June 17, 2011

If QE2 Was Price-Level Targeting, It is Starting to Work

Has QE2 worked? Some say yes, some say no. The answer depends on what you wanted it to do.
If you wanted a quick revival of the housing market, a boost to GDP growth, and rapid job creation, it's easy to say QE2 has failed. None of those indicators look good. On the other hand, if you thought the purpose of QE2 was to save the country from deflation, then it looks better, especially if you are a fan of price level targeting.

Follow this link to read the full post on Ed Dolan's Econ Blog at Economonitor.com

Monday, June 13, 2011

One Year Later, How Much Has China's Yuan Appreciated?

A year ago this week China announced a major change in its exchange rate policy. After holding the yuan-dollar exchange rate fixed for almost two years during the global crisis, the country's central bank, the People's Bank of China (PBoC) announced that the yuan would once again be allowed to float, albeit in a highly controlled way. The yuan began appreciating against the dollar immediately, touching off intense speculation about how far it would be allowed to move. A year later, what has happened?

Follow this link to read the full post on Ed Dolan's Econ Blog at Economonitor.com

Friday, June 3, 2011

Data for the Classroom: US Unemployment for May 2011

Latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a very weak job US job market in May, 2011.

Payroll employment increased for the 8th straight month of job growth in May, but the pace of job growth slowed to a weak 54,000, the slowest September 2010. An increase of 83,000 in private nonfarm jobs was offset by a decrease of 23,000 in state and local government jobs. A separate survey of households, which includes farm jobs and self-employment, showed an increase of 105,000 jobs.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Data for the Classroom: US GDP First Quarter 2011

US GDP grew at an estimated 1.8% annual rate in Q1 2011, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The January-March 2011 quarter was the 7th consecutive quarter of growth since the end of the recession that lasted from Dec 2007 to Jun 2009. The growth rate of 1.8 percent disappointed many observers. Growth is expected to recover somewhat later in the year, but the recovery remains weak.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Failure of Austerity in Europe? What Does the Latvian Exception Prove?

Writing in The New York Times this week, Paul Krugman argues that austerity has failed in Europe. Budget cuts and tax increases were supposed to provide the confidence needed to get troubled EU economies back on track, but the "confidence fairy" hasn't shown up. Austerity has not just failed to work, says Krugman—it has made matters worse. He shares the view, held almost universally outside official circles, that doubling down on austerity will not save Greece, Ireland and Portugal from eventual default in one form or another.

Meanwhile, there is the case of Latvia, where a stringent austerity program, supported by the EU and the IMF, predates those of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. Austerity brought on a stunning 18 percent drop in Latvian GDP in 2009, but now the country is returning to growth. Unemployment and the budget deficit are still high, but falling. Is Latvia the exception that proves that austerity is a good idea after all?

→Read the full post on Ed Dolan's Econ Blog at Economonitor.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Will Shifting Political Winds Finally Kill Ethanol Subsidies?

As recently as last December, the coalition backing U.S. ethanol subsidies appeared to be alive and well, despite the fact that everyone knew they were bad for the environment, bad for energy efficiency, and bad for the budget. The largest subsidy, a tax credit for blending ethanol into gasoline, was set to expire at the end of 2010. At the last minute, though, ethanol's friends rallied to slip a little-noticed one-year renewal of the subsidy into a bill extending the Bush tax cuts and benefits for the long-term unemployed. As I blogged at the time, it looked like ethanol subsidies were a classic case of a bad policy that refused to die.

Now ethanol subsidies are back in the news, and this time they may be on the way out. One piece of legislation, introduced by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would not only end the 45-cent per gallon tax credit, but also eliminate the 54-cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol. To understand what has changed, we need to look at the economics behind the shifting pro- and anti-ethanol coalitions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Are Financial Regulators Flying Blind? Could Better Risk Topography Help?

Data on the capital and liquidity of banks are the navigation aids that regulators depend on to avoid another financial crash. Improvements to these indicators, adopted last year by the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision, are among the most heralded regulatory reforms since the 2008 crisis. But what if the instruments are faulty, even in their upgraded form? If so, regulators are flying blind, and our chances of avoiding another crash are slim. What can be done?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The People's Budget: Cutting the Deficit the Progressive Way

In previous posts, I have discussed bipartisan attempts to find a fiscal policy compromise (here and here), and also Republican plans for closing the budget gap through spending cuts alone (here and here). Today's post turns to the less widely publicized People's Budget from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. What is there to like about the progressive fiscal plan, and what not to like?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Ecosocialist Critique of Capitalism vs. Real World Socialism

It has been twenty years now since first glasnost and then the collapse of the USSR lifted the curtain on the appalling environmental record of Soviet socialism. Over that same 20 years, the burgeoning economy of socialist China has overtaken the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Still, it remains common to hear capitalism singled out as the greatest environmental threat to our planet, and socialism as its salvation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Can We Learn about the Ryan Medicare Plan from German Experience?

Last week Republicans in the US House of Representatives, following the lead of Representative Paul Ryan, endorsed a far-reaching plan to reform Medicare, the nation's health care system for the elderly. Since it began in 1965, Medicare has been a government-run, single-payer system that reimburses private doctors and hospitals for the health care services they provide. Under the Ryan plan, it would be transformed into a system in which seniors would choose from a list of  competing private insurance plans, with the premiums paid partly by government and partly by the beneficiaries themselves.

Supporters of the Ryan plan see several benefits. An open letter, posted on the web site of the American Enterprise Institute and signed by a list of prominent physicians and economists, puts it this way:
Having more control over their health care spending would encourage consumers and patients to make better health care choices. It would stimulate more innovative and accountable competition by health care providers and give them incentives to better coordinate the care of their patients. Enhanced competition could offer seniors relief from rising Medicare premiums. Just as important, this reform could begin to ease the crushing tax burden imposed by the current program on our children and grandchildren.
Critics fear that in its zeal to ease the burden on taxpayers, the Ryan plan would make Medicare-equivalent health care unaffordable for many, if not most seniors. Under the plan, the value of government payments would be capped at the rate of growth of the Consumer Price Index. If medical costs continued to grow faster than the CPI, as they have in the past, more and more of the financial burden of health care would be shifted over time to beneficiaries. A study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, using assumptions from the Congressional Budget Office, claims that by 2022, a senior citizen at the median income would have to pay 35 percent of that income to obtain coverage equivalent to Medicare, with the figure rising to 68 percent by 2050.

The idea of competing private health insurance plans, with premiums split between beneficiaries and the government, is far from new. It has been used for many years in Germany, among other places. What insights regarding the likely effects of the Ryan plan can we get by looking at the German experience?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Tax Reform Really on the Table, or Not?

Last October I wrote a lengthy post explaining why tax reform is the best path to growth-friendly deficit reduction. At that time, six short months ago, hardly anyone in Washington was talking about tax reform. Now both the Republicans, in the Ryan plan, and President Obama, in this week's deficit-reduction speech, are trumpeting tax reform as the centerpiece of their respective proposals. Does that mean tax reform is finally on the table? Should we expect a dramatic, bipartisan breakthrough soon? I'm afraid not.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is Financial Reform Working or Will It Make Things Worse?

The 2008 financial crash gave rise to a world-wide call for a review of regulations. In the United States, the EU, and international forums like the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision, the conclusion was reached that regulators had allowed banks and other financial institutions to take risks well in excess of those justified by the public interest. Legislatures were brought into the act where needed to change the regulatory framework. Everyone vowed to fix things.

Now, with some of the key pieces finalized on paper, but not fully implemented, financial reform is running into a backlash. Skeptics, including former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who expressed his misgivings recently in the Financial Times, argue that reform efforts not only will not work, but are making things worse. Others, like U.S. Representative Barney Frank, co-sponsor of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act, strongly disagree. In a reply to Greenspan, Frank argued that the financial system can be made safer while still leaving it able to perform its essential economic functions. Who is right?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Econ 101, Hayek, and Why We Are Losing the War against Drugs

Last week The New York Times reported that the drug cartels, after shaking the political and economic structures of Colombia and Mexico to their foundations, are moving into Central America. Just one more sign, as if we needed it, that the United States is losing its endless war on drugs.

No one who has ever taken Econ 101, or read the works of Friedrich Hayek, should be the least bit surprised. The drug cartels are strong because the US strategy in the drug wars makes them strong. Here's why.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will Central Banks Accommodate the Oil Price Shock?

Inflation rates are rising in the world's major economies. The consumer price index rose by half a percent in the United States in February, equivalent to an annual rate of 6.2 percent. Consumer prices rose at a 4.4 percent annual rate in the UK and a 2.4 percent rate in the euro area. All three central banks have explicit or implicit inflation targets of 2 percent or less.

In all three economies, rising oil prices accounted for a big part of the increase of inflation. That fact poses a dilemma for monetary policy. Should central banks tighten monetary policy to counteract the effects of oil price increases and prevent general inflation? Or should they instead accommodate oil price increases with easy monetary policy, in order to maintain growth of output and employment? Two problems make the choice a difficult one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Move Over Ethanol, Market Forces Favor CNG as a Gasoline Replacement

Ethanol is finally getting the bad press (1) (2) it richly deserves. Cracks are even beginning to appear in its once-solid support on Capitol Hill. In April, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plans to hold hearings that are expected to skewer ethanol. The Committee is led by Democratic Chair Barbara Boxer and ranking Republican James Inhofe, both committed foes of burning food to run our cars.

However, whether or not Congress has the courage to cut ethanol subsidies, corn-based fuel faces a more fundamental challenge, this one from market forces. Although it has not been widely noticed, the one-two punch of the latest oil price spike and wider development of unconventional natural gas, including shales, tight sands, and coal-bed methane, have pushed the gap between the prices of oil and gas to a record high. Click through to this nice little graphic from The New York Times, and you will see that on an energy-equivalent basis, oil now costs four times more than gas. As recently as 2005, gas was actually the more expensive of the two fuels.

But run your car on natural gas? Isn't that one of those loony ideas from the inside back cover of Popular Science? No, not at all. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is a fully proven, off-the-shelf technology in wide use around the world. Perhaps only its very simplicity and low-tech reliability have kept it from catching the public imagination in the United States.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Can the US Learn from the French Health Care System?

As reported in the first post in this series, the French health care system comes in at or near the top of international rankings, while the US system falls well down the lists. It stands to reason, then, that US health care reformers should have something to learn from the French experience, but just what? There seem to be lessons both for those who are optimistic about US health care reform and those who think reform will be difficult.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How a Price-Smoothing Oil Tax Could Help Make This the Last Oil Price Shock

It must be Groundhog Day. Events in Libya have pushed world oil prices over $100 a barrel yet again. Retail gasoline prices, usually low this time of year, are at an all-time seasonal high. Are we in for another round of the same-old, same-old? A replay of Jimmy Carter pledging, "Never Again!" and then doing nothing? Or is there some way we can make this the very last oil price shock?

Producing countries have already figured out how to cope with the curse of oil price volatility. Over the years, producing countries, from Norway to Saudi Arabia to Russia, have established national wealth funds that build up when prices are high and run down when prices fall. Meanwhile, consuming countries have done next to nothing.

The US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, designed to offer short-term protection against physical interruptions of supply, is not intended to serve the purpose of price stabilization, nor would it be capable of doing so. But there is a way. Now would be an ideal time to revive an old idea, a variable oil tax that would reduce price volatility and, at the same time, offset the national security and environmental harms of oil dependency.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Can the US Learn from Other Countries' Health Care Systems?

Even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2010, and in part, because of it, health care remains a major issue of public policy in the United States. It is central to ideologically charged discussions of fairness, the role of government, and even the budget, since the cost of health care is the single largest driver of the federal deficit. In confronting this complex and sensitive issue, it seems only reasonable that we ask what we can learn from the experience of other countries. As the first in an occasional series, this post will look at broad international comparisons of health care systems. Subsequent posts will examine what can be learned from individual countries.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How Chronic Budget Optimism Helped Dig The Hole We Are In

The budget for fiscal year 2012, just published by the White House, presents an optimistic prognosis for US fiscal health. Like all budgets, it looks ahead not just one, but several years. The budget deficit, expected to be 10.9 percent of GDP in 2011, is projected to fall to 7 percent in FY 2012 itself (October 2011 through September 2012), then to 4.6 percent in 2013 and 3.6 percent in 2014. By 2018, the budget is supposed to show a small primary surplus (surplus before interest expense), something essential if the debt-to-GDP ratio is to be stabilized.

Some of the deficit decrease is to come from spending cuts and measures to enhance revenues, but most of it comes from assumed improvements in the economy. Real GDP growth, which is expected to be 2.6 percent this year, is assumed to rise to 3.6 in FY2012, and then to 4.4, and 4.3 percent in the next two. At the same time, according to assumptions, the unemployment rate is supposed to fall steadily from 9.6 percent in 2011, to 8.6, 7.5, and 6.6 percent for 2012 through 2014. The numbers are not brilliant, but compared to the recent past, they don't look bad.

However, if the assumed improvements in the economy don't materialize, neither will the deficit reductions. Overly optimistic assumptions for future years may bring short-term political gains at the moment the budget message is delivered, but they spell long-term trouble. They give Congress an excuse for tax cuts and spending increases the country can't really afford, and they give the White House an excuse for signing off on them. Unfortunately, the experience of the recent past suggests that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has had a tendency to look at the world through rose-colored glasses.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Policy Dilemma: Budget Deficit vs. Infrastructure Deficit

As the federal budget season moves into full swing, infrastructure is not only on the table, but in the center of the table. The Obama administration budget, which would cut some areas of spending and freeze others, calls for more infrastructure spending, including high-speed rail, wireless Internet, and modernization of the electric grid. Across the aisle, House Republican leaders, vowing to "leave no stone unturned and allowing no agency or program to be held sacred," envision infrastructure cuts, including Amtrak, EPA grants for municipal clean water, and other programs. Some Republicans want to outdo the leadership and cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, something that would require even more drastic infrastructure cuts.

Who is right? Is infrastructure spending an essential investment in our future or a morass of waste and boondoggles? Where can we safely prune the infrastructure budget, and where can we not?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Case Against the Mortgage Interest Deduction

As the US economy struggles to recover from recession and cope with a budget crisis, all past policies must be put on the table for review and revision. Even the sacred cows. Even the mortgage interest deduction.

A new report from the OECD, which deserves more attention than it has been getting, explains the role badly-designed housing policies played in triggering the recent economic crisis. As the report shows, housing policy varies greatly among developed economies. There are some areas where the United States scores well. For example, it has a relatively liberal regime of building and land use permits. As a result, the supply of housing responds more to rising prices than in other OECD countries. Also, with the exception of some urban areas like New York and San Francisco, the US rental housing market has a healthier balance between the rights of landlords and tenants. However, in the area of tax treatment of owner-occupied housing, the United States comes off poorly.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Could an Obscure Loophole Send the Euro the Way of the Ruble?

Could an obscure loophole known as emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) lead to the collapse of the euro area, much as the post-Soviet ruble area collapsed in 1991-1993? Some people seem to think so. The Irish Independent says that use of ELA by the Irish central bank amounts to "printing its own money." Tracy Alloway, writing on ft.com/alphaville, emphasizes the secret, hush-hush nature of ELA operations. One blogger goes so far as to speak of hyperinflation. Is there really something fishy going on? And what does ELA have to do with the ruble?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Demographics and Politics as Much as Floods and Security Undermine Pakistan's Economy

In a recent White House meeting with President Asif Ali Zadari of Pakistan, US President Barack Obama underscored the importance of the US-Pakistani relationship and emphasized continued US support for the country. Unfortunately, the prospects for a payoff to US strategic commitments in Pakistan remain clouded by deep economic weaknesses that have their origins as much in demographics and political factors as in the more widely publicized natural disasters and security issues.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Impossible Trinity, or, Why Latin America Hates QE2

Latin America is up in arms over QE2. Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, sees the Fed's program of quantitative easing as a form of currency manipulation on a par with China's efforts to maintain an undervalued yuan. We hear dark talk of currency wars and threats to raise the issue with the G20, the WTO, and anyone else who will listen. Why all the anger directed against what most people in the United States view as a purely domestic policy that hopes to reboot a sluggish recovery? Why wouldn't that be welcomed by US trading partners in Latin America and everywhere?

Part of the answer is that in today's world, there is no such thing as purely domestic monetary policy. Actions of the central banks even of small countries send out little ripples through the global financial system. Those of major central banks can send out big waves.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Could Federal Spending be Capped at 20 Percent of GDP? Should it Be?

As the budget debate heats up, we will hear much about capping U.S. federal government spending at 20 percent of GDP, roughly its level for several decades leading up to the global financial crisis. Likely presidential candidate Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has been among the most vocal backers of this idea. Together with colleagues, he has packaged it in the form of a proposed Spending Limit Amendment. Would it really be possible to impose such a spending limit? Yes. Would we like the results if we tried it? Not all of us would. Here is why.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hidden Pitfalls of Increasing U.S. Dependence on Canadian Oil Sands

Canada is the biggest supplier of oil imports to the United States. Increasingly, those imports come from its vast reserves of oil sands. Is the growing U.S. dependence on Canadian oil sands a win-win deal for both countries, crucial for U.S. energy security, and a source of jobs and economic growth, as American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard claims? Is the development of Canadian oil sands "the most destructive project on earth", as a Canadian environmental report calls it? What pitfalls for policy makers and investors lie hidden in the heated rhetoric coming from both sides in the oil sands debate?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

If a Stronger Yuan is Good, Can A Weaker Dollar be Bad?

One of the top themes for 2010 in economics, politics, and diplomacy was the damage being done to the U.S. economy by an undervalued Chinese yuan. As the yuan began to appreciate in the second half of the year, slowly in nominal terms but more rapidly in real terms, everyone cheered. At the same time the yuan appreciated, the dollar depreciated, not just relative to the yuan, but to all foreign currencies on average. The broad weakness of the dollar was welcomed much less enthusiastically. Words like "unpleasant" and "grim" tended to be used instead.

So what gives? If a stronger yuan is good, can a weaker dollar really be bad?

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Price-Level Targeting? Has Its Time Come?

As we enter 2011, we are hearing more about something called price-level targeting. It clearly has something to do with monetary policy, but what does the term really mean, and why is it coming up for discussion right now? Is it a policy the Fed is likely to adopt, or is perhaps already using?