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The Vicissitudes of the Market Would Be a Big Improvement

October 1, 2014 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

Bob Kuttner has a good column in the Huffington Post comparing the progress made in improving the living standards of ordinary people in the forty years following the New Deal with the deterioration of the last three decades. However the piece doesn’t go far enough in contrasting the former period with the latter period.

After noting the lack of progress in recent years he comments:

“You wonder why people are turning away from the Democrats’ proposition that affirmative government can buffer people from the vicissitudes of the marketplace? You wonder why millennials are attracted to the libertarian proposition that we’re all on our own anyway?”

Of course the problem of the last three decades is not the “vicissitudes of the marketplace,” but rather deliberate actions by the government to redistribute income from the rest of us to the one percent. This pattern of government action shows up in all areas of government policy.  Read more…

The mysteries of inequality are only mysterious to elites

September 23, 2014 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Developing explanations for the growth in inequality over the last three decades has been a huge growth industry in economics and policy circles. Many economists have made their careers with a novel explanation of how the natural development of technology and the market has concentrated income and wealth in the top one percent. It’s even better if you can show that inequality hasn’t risen. While the explanations that blame inequality on technology can get complicated, there were three items in the last week that painted the picture very clearly for the rest of us.

First, we got new data from the Federal Reserve Board and the Census Bureau, both of which showed that typical families are still seeing very little benefit from the recovery to date. The Fed released the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance which showed median family wealth was still below the 2010 level in spite of the run-up in the stock market.

The Census Bureau released its annual data on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage. While there was some good news on the latter two, median income remained flat. The story in both the Fed and Census analysis remains the same; those at the top continue to get the bulk of the benefits from economic growth. Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm

The myth that sold the financial bailout

September 17, 2014 4 comments

from Dean Baker

If there had been political support for massive spending in these areas, the Depression could have ended in 1931 instead of 1941.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The investment bank’s bankruptcy accelerated the financial meltdown that began with the near collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns in March 2008 (saved by the Federal Reserve and JPMorgan) and picked up steam with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac going under the week before Lehman’s demise. The day after Lehman failed, the giant insurer AIG was set to collapse, only to be rescued by the Fed.

With the other Wall Street behemoths also on shaky ground, then–Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson ran to Capitol Hill, accompanied by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner. Their message was clear: The apocalypse was nigh. They demanded Congress make an open-ended commitment to bail out the banks. In a message repeated endlessly by the punditocracy ever since, the failure to cough up the money would have led to a second Great Depression.

The claim was nonsense then, and it’s even greater nonsense now.  Read more…

Robert Rubin and Martin Feldstein discover bubbles

August 19, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week Martin Feldstein and Robert Rubin made their case for the gold medal in the economic policy category of the “show no shame” contest. Their entry took the form of a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that the Fed needs to take seriously the risk of asset bubbles growing in financial markets.

Those familiar with Feldstein and Rubin will instantly appreciate the bold audacity of this entry. They are, respectively, the leading intellectual lights of the Republican and Democratic Party economic policy establishments.

Feldstein was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan. He also was president of the National Bureau of Economic Research for thirty years and a professor and chair of economics department at Harvard. Almost all of the country’s top conservative economists have either directly studied with Feldstein or one of his protégées.

Robert Rubin was instrumental in creating a solid Democratic base among the Wall Street set. He was rewarded for his efforts with top positions in the Clinton administration, including a stint as Treasury Secretary from 1995 to 1998. Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner both advanced under his tutelage and he continues to be a source of economic wisdom for President Obama and other top figures in the party.

Given their enormous stature, Feldstein and Rubin undoubtedly expected their joint bubble warning to have considerable weight in economic policy circles. Of course this raises the obvious question, why couldn’t Feldstein and Rubin have joined hands to issue this sort of bubble warning ten years ago in 2004 about the housing bubble? If they used their influence to get a column about the dangers of the housing bubble in the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2004 it might have saved the country and the world an enormous amount of pain.    Read more…

How the incipient inflation freak-out could wreck the recovery

August 11, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein

As predictable as August vacations, numerous economists and Federal Reserve watchers are arguing that the nation’s central bank must raise interest rates or risk an outbreak of spiraling inflation. Their campaign has heated up a bit in recent months, as one can cherry pick an indicator or two showing slightly faster growth in prices or wages.

But an objective analysis of the recent data, along with longer-term wage trends, reveals that the stakes of premature tightening are unacceptably high. The vast majority of the population depends on their paychecks, not their stock portfolios. If the Fed were to slam on the breaks by raising interest rates as soon as workers started to see some long-awaited real wage gains, it would be acting to prevent most of the country from seeing improvements in living standards.

To understand why continued support from the Fed is unlikely to be inflationary, consider three factors: the current state of key variables, the mechanics of inflationary pressures and the sharp rise in profits as a share of national income in recent years, along with its corollary, the fall in the compensation share. (See figure.)

Source: BEA.

Source: BEA.

Read more…

Categories: The Economy, Uncategorized

Inflation hawks: The job killers at the Fed

August 7, 2014 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

Discussions of inflation and Federal Reserve Board policy take place primarily in the business media. That’s unfortunate, because these discussions can have more impact on the jobs and wages of most workers than almost any other policy imaginable.

The context of these discussions is that many economists, including some in policy making positions at the Fed, claim that the labor market is getting too tight. They argue this is leading to more rapid wage growth, which will cause more inflation and that this would be really bad news for the economy. Therefore they want the Fed to raise interest rates.

The part of this story that few people seem to grasp is that point of raising interest is to kill jobs. If that sounds like a bizarre accusation to make against responsible people in public life then you need to pick up an introductory economics text.

The story line there is that we get inflation if too many people are employed. There are all sorts of ways of making the story more complicated, and many people get PhDs in economics doing just that, but the basic point is a simple one: at lower rates of unemployment workers have more bargaining power and are therefore able to push up their wages. Read more…

Finance in America: Promoting inequality and waste

August 1, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

In the crazy years of the housing boom the financial sector was a gigantic cesspool of excess and corruption. There was big money in pushing and packaging fraudulent mortgages. The country paid a huge price for the financial sector’s sleaze.

Unfortunately, because of the Obama administration’s soft on crime approach to the bankers who became rich in the process; the industry is still a cesspool of excess and greed. Just to be clear, knowingly issuing and packaging a fraudulent mortgage is a crime, the sort of thing for which people go to jail. But thanks to the political power of the Wall Street, none of them went to jail, and in fact they got to keep the money.

Since the penalties for ripping off people are trivial to non-existent, the financial sector finds this to be a much more profitable line of business than actually providing financial services. The New York Times recently reported on the boom in the subprime market for auto loans featuring many of the same abusive practices we saw in the subprime mortgage market during the bubble years. Lenders are slapping on extra fees, changing the terms after contracts are signed, and doing all the other fun things we have come to expect from leaders in finance. The used car industry was sufficiently powerful that it was able to gain an exemption from being covered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Read more…

US median wealth is down by 20 percent since 1984

July 29, 2014 7 comments

from Dean Baker

A NYT article reported on a study from Russell Sage reporting that median household wealth 36 percent lower in 2013 than 2003. While this is disturbing, an even more striking finding from the study is that median wealth is down by around 20 percent from 1984.

This is noteworthy because this cannot be explained as largely the result of the collapse of house prices that triggered the Great Recession. This indicates that we have gone thirty years, during which time output per worker has more than doubled, but real wealth has actually fallen for the typical family. It is also important to realize that the drop in wealth reported in the study understates the true drop since a typical household in 1984 would have been able to count on a defined benefit pension. This is not true at present, so the effective drop in wealth is even larger than reported by the study. (Defined benefit pensions are not included in its measure of wealth.)

Did the banks have to commit fraud?

July 21, 2014 5 comments

from Dean Baker

Floyd Norris has an interesting piece discussing Citigroup’s $7 billion settlement for misrepresenting the quality of the mortgages in the mortgage backed securities it marketed in the housing bubble. Norris notes that the bank had consultants who warned that many of the mortgages did not meet its standards and therefore should not have been included the securities.

Towards the end of the piece Norris comments:

“And it may well be true that actions like Citigroup’s were necessary for any bank that wanted to stay in what then appeared to be a highly profitable business. Imagine for a minute what would have happened in 2006 if Citigroup had listened to its consultants and canceled the offerings. To the mortgage companies making the loans, that might have simply marked Citigroup as uncooperative. The business would have gone to less scrupulous competitors.”

This raises the question of what purpose is served by this sort of settlement. Undoubtedly Norris’ statement is true. However, the market dynamic might be different if this settlement were different. Read more…

Categories: financial markets

Full employment and the path to shared prosperity (3 graphs)

July 2, 2014 7 comments

from Dean Baker and  Jared Bernstein

There are many policies that can reduce inequality, but there is none as straightforward conceptually and as difficult politically as full employment. The basic point is simple: at low rates of unemployment, the demand for labor allows workers at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution to achieve gains in hourly wages, annual hours of work, and thus income.

Levels of unemployment are not the gift or curse of the gods; they are the result of conscious economic policy. The decision to tolerate high rates of unemployment is a choice. It is one that has enor-mous implications not just for the millions of people who are needlessly unemployed or underemployed but also for tens of millions of workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution whose bar-gaining power is undermined by high unemployment.

Unemployment and Wage Growth

In discussions of inequality and low wages, many on both the left and the right claim that what we need is a better educated workforce. Their argument is that because educated workers are more productive and workers’ pay reflects their productivity, they will earn more if we can persuade them to get more education. However, while more education is generally associated with higher wages, this is just part of the story. In most jobs, the value of workers’ labor depends on the demand for their labor. A retail clerk in a store or a waiter in a restaurant is far more productive, meaning they are generating far more revenue, when business is strong than when it is weak. This means that, in a strong economy, employers can afford to pay a worker with the same level of education and training a higher wage.  Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Will India be the Uber of the Pharmaceutical Industry?

June 30, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Many self-styled libertarians have been celebrating the rise of Uber. Their story is that Uber is a dynamic start-up that has managed to disrupt the moribund cab industry. The company now has a market capitalization of $17 billion.

While Uber’s market value probably depends mostly on its ability to evade the regulations that are imposed on its competitors, the company has succeeded in transforming the industry. At the least we are likely to see a modernized regulatory structure that doesn’t saddle cabs with needless regulations and fees.

Unfortunately, the taxi industry is not the only sector of the U.S. economy that can use modernization. The pharmaceutical industry makes the taxi industry look like cutting edge social media. The government imposed barriers to entry in the pharmaceutical industry don’t just raise prices by 20 or 30 percent, as may be the case with taxi fares, they raise prices by a factor or ten, twenty, or even one hundred (that would be 10,000 percent).  Read more…

Categories: health

Your tax dollars at work: charities that make the rich richer

June 26, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

We usually think of charities as being a story where money flows down from those on top to those who are most in need. But in our vibrant 21st century economy, charity often flows in the opposite direction, with rest of us subsidizing the incomes of very rich. That is the implication of several recent news stories.

For example, we have John Sexton the president of New York University. The university was recently in the news because of a story reporting that workers building its Abu Dhabi campus are often beaten and have their wages stolen. This campus is part of an ambitious expansion plan designed by Sexton, who reportedly makes $1.5 million a year and stands to pocket a “longevity bonus” of $2.5 million if he stays into 2015.

The University of Chicago is another school where the president, Robert Zimmer, appears to be doing rather well financially. Mr. Zimmer’s compensation for 2013 was reportedly $1.9 million after having spiked to $3.4 million the prior year. This compensation comes in spite of the fact that the school has an operating deficit and may be at risk of a credit downgrade.

A study by the Institute for Policy Studies found that student debt and low-paid faculty increased more rapidly at the universities with the 25 highest paid presidents than the national average. At the very least this suggests high presidential pay is not associated with scoring well in terms of either holding down student debt or minimizing the share of adjunct faculty. Read more…

Reinhart and Rogoff: One year later

May 6, 2014 6 comments

from Dean Baker

It has been a bit more than a year since the Excel Spreadsheet error that shook the world. For those who may have missed it, in April of 2013, Thomas Herndon, a University of Massachusetts graduate student in economics, found an error in the calculations of Harvard Professors Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff on the relationship between government debt and economic growth.

Reinhart and Rogoff had done analysis showing that countries experienced sharply slower growth once their debt to GDP ratio exceeded 90 percent. With the United States and many European countries reaching debt to GDP ratios in this 90 percent range, Reinhart-Rogoff’s work was seen as a warning alarm. It was taken as providing evidence that they would have to reduce spending and/or raise taxes to get or stay below the 90 percent cutoff.

Political leaders and central bankers around the world were happy to trumpet the Reinhart-Rogoff findings. The story was that cutting deficits may slow growth in the short-term, and seriously hurt those directly affected by the cuts such as laid off government workers, but it was essential medicine for sustaining a healthy economy.

The spreadsheet error uncovered by Herndon, and analyzed in a paper co-authored with two University of Massachusetts professors, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, showed that the Reinhart and Rogoff story was not true. Working off the spreadsheet that Reinhart and Rogoff had created, they showed there was no 90 percent cliff. Reinhart and Rogoff’s cliff depended both on the spreadsheet error and also a peculiar way of aggregating growth rates across countries. Read more…

Is the stock market getting bubbly?

May 2, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein argues it is, taking issue with fellow columnist Barry Ritholtz who says it isn’t. I’m going to come down in the middle here.

The market is somewhat above its historic levels relative to trend earnings. Pearlstein cites Shiller who puts the price to earnings ratio at 25 to 1, compared to a historic average of 16. (Pearlstein seems to place a lot of faith in Shiller who he tells us got a Nobel for his knack for spotting bubbles. Shiller may have gotten the Nobel, but I got the bubble story right. In 2003 he argued that there was no bubble in the housing market by making a comparison of real house prices and real incomes. I had recognized the bubble a year earlier by noting that inflation adjusted house prices had been rising since the late 1990s after remaining largely flat for the prior half century. Shiller later did research agreeing with my assessment that quality-adjusted house prices should track inflation, not income.) Anyhow, I would agree that stock prices are somewhat above trend, but not by quite as large a margin as Shiller.

To get some perspective,  Read more…

Categories: The Economy

Economic policy in a post-Piketty world

April 25, 2014 19 comments

from Dean Baker

Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, has done a remarkable job of focusing public attention on the growth of inequality in the last three decades and the risk that it will grow further in the decades ahead. Piketty’s basic point on this issue is almost too simple for economists to understand: if the rate of return on wealth (r) is greater than the rate of growth (g), then wealth is likely to become ever more concentrated.

This raises the obvious question of what can be done to offset this tendency towards rising inequality? Piketty’s answer is that we need a global wealth tax (GWT) to redistribute from the rich to everyone else. That is a reasonable solution if we’re just working out the arithmetic in this story, but don’t expect many politicians to be running on the GWT platform any time soon.

If we want to counter the rise in inequality that we have seen in recent decades we are going to have to find other mechanisms for reversing this upward redistribution. Specifically, we will have to look to ways to reduce the rents earned by the wealthy. These rents stem from government interventions in the economy that have the effect of redistributing income upward. In Piketty’s terminology cutting back these rents means reducing r, the rate of return on wealth.

Fortunately, we have a full bag of policy tools to accomplish precisely this task. The best place to start is the financial industry, primarily since this sector is so obviously a ward of the state and in many ways a drain on the productive economy. Read more…

Krugman and DeLong on avoiding secular stagnation

April 1, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman are having some back and forth on the problem of secular stagnation and what it would have taken to avoid a prolonged period of high unemployment. I thought I would weigh in quickly since I have a better track record on this stuff than either of them.

The basic story going into the crash was that we had an economy that was being driven by the housing bubble. This was both directly through residential construction and indirectly through the consumption that followed from $8 trillion of bubble generated housing equity. Residential construction expanded to a record high of more than 6 percent of GDP at a time when demographics would have implied its share would be shrinking. This led to enormous overbuilding, which is why construction hit record lows following the crash. (There was a smaller bubble in non-residential real estate that also burst in the crash.)

Consumption also predictably plummeted. This is known as the housing wealth effect. (I learned about this in grad school, didn’t anyone else?) Anyhow, when people saw their homes soar in value many spent in part based on this wealth. This might have meant doing cash out refinancing, a story that obsessed Alan Greenspan during the bubble years. It might mean a home equity loan, or it might just mean not putting money into a retirement account because your house is saving for you.

Read more…

Categories: The Economy

Europe doesn’t need America’s fracked natural gas

March 27, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

In the wake of the Russian takeover of Crimea, there havebeen a number of calls for weaning Europe from dependence on Russian natural gas. Some have suggested that Europe would abandon environmental restrictions on drilling for oil and gas to increase domestic production. To help, the U.S. would continue to massively increase production of oil and gas as well as its capacity to liquefy natural gas and transport it to Europe.

The weaners seem to have the impression that this is yet another case in which the United States has to come to the rescue of those weak Europeans. After all, while we were drilling everywhere, the Europeans were fiddling around with wind and solar energy, all the while making themselves vulnerable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s machinations.

Reality-based fans of arithmetic see matters differently. The reality is that Europe, especially Germany, has done a huge amount over the last two decades to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, including natural gas, from Russia. The reduction in fossil fuel use swamps the impact of the drill-everywhere strategy in the United States.

If Europe had not been aggressively pushing to reduce its energy use, there is no way that gas from Russia could be replaced by domestically fracked gas or imports from elsewhere. In addition, Europe’s efforts to reduce fuel consumption have the advantage of slowing global warming.

Read more…

Was the Irish recovery driven by drugs?

March 25, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Apparently it was in large part, according to this WSJ article. The piece tells readers that Ireland’s economy shrank by 2.3 percent from the third to the fourth quarter, meaning that it dropped at a 9.2 percent annual rate, to use the normal terminology of people in the United States when talking about growth data. However the article later tells us that the story is not as bad as it first appears, since much of this decline is due to a major drug going off patent, which has reduced the income flows recorded in Ireland.

Due to its low corporate tax rate, many multinational companies book income in Ireland even though it was actually generated elsewhere. These phantom income flows have little to do with the state of the Irish economy. To avoid this problem it is more useful to look at gross national income. If we look at the OECD data on Irish national income we find that the number for 2012 (the most recent year available) was still 8.6 percent below the 2008 level. In fact, it was 2.3 percent below the 2005 level. Obviously Ireland is yet another one of those great success stories from the economic whizzes at the European Commission.

Categories: The Economy

Would you delay buying a $30 shirt for months to save 8 cents? Me neither

March 11, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The collapse of the housing bubble and the subsequent devastation to the economy caught almost the entire economics profession by surprise. Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, along with other people in top policy positions, were left dumbfounded. They didn’t think a prolonged downturn was possible. They were wrong in a really big way.
The current group of central bank chairs and other top policymakers would like us to believe that they’ve learned their lesson and now everything is under control. They want us to think they actually have a clue about how the economy operates. There is good reason to believe otherwise. The European Central Bank (ECB) recognizes that inflation has been running below its 2% inflation target and is likely to stay below that target for several years to come. But the ECB has reassured the public that’s prepared to act, making sure that the eurozone doesn’t see deflation. That the bank cares about the inflation rate crossing zero and turning negative is a sign that it has no clue about how the economy works.

The point here is incredibly simple Read more…

Categories: The Economy

In the real world the trade deficit is more important than the budget deficit

March 11, 2014 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Washington politicians like to hyperventilate about the budget deficit. However changes in the budget deficit are overwhelmingly a response to economic conditions rather than the result of deliberate policy. In other words, politicians didn’t have much to do with the changes. Furthermore, since the budget is responding to economic changes, it is not giving us new information about the economy.

On the other hand the trade deficit is a direct measure of the amount of demand that is going overseas rather than being spent here. This represents income generated in the United States that is not creating demand in the United States. By definition, this lost demand must be made up by other borrowing, either by the public sector (i.e. budget deficits) or the private sector. Currently the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of around $480 billion (@ 3.0 percent of GDP), which means that the sum of net borrowing in the public and private sector must be equal to $480 billion. Read more…

Categories: The Economy
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