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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

New York Times columnist is upset that some folks don’t like the government redistributing income upward

March 4, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

New York Times columnist Arthur Brooks tells us that people who are unhappy about the enormous upward redistribution of the last three decades are guilty of the sin of envy. Let’s try an alternative hypothesis, large segments of the public are angry because the wealthy are rigging the rules so that an ever larger share of the pie gets redistributed to their pockets.

There are a large number of well-documented ways in which they have engineered this heist. For example, they have too big to fail insurance that transfers tens of billions of dollars each year into the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders of the country’s largest banks. They also managed to secure near tax-free status for the financial industry, which puts tens of billions more into the pockets of the big actors there. And they have constructed a tax code chock-full of shelters that allow pension fund managers like Mitt Romney to get incredibly rich by buying up new companies and teaching them the game.  Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

The attack of the robots: economists’ silly fantasies

February 11, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Economists are not very good at economics. We know this because we had a huge housing bubble that collapsed, which almost none of them saw. The pre-crash projections from the Congressional Budget Office imply that this downturn has already cost us more than $7.6 trillion, or $25,000 per person. This could have been prevented if we had economists in policy positions who understood how the economy worked.

But even if economists aren’t very good at dealing with the economy, they still can provide value to society. In particular they can be a great source of entertainment. That’s how we should view the story that robots will take all of our jobs and leave most of the population unemployed.

This story has become a popular theme lately among Washington policy types. There are important people from across the political spectrum running around town wringing their hands over the prospect that the economy may not provide jobs for large segments of the labor force.

The first aspect of this story that should impress people is that many of the same people have been wringing their hands about the exact opposite problem, most likely without even knowing it. Read more…

The checkered past of Ben Bernanke

February 6, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

The retrospectives of Ben Bernanke on his leaving the Fed seem to be coming in overly positive. While there is much that is positive about his tenure as Fed chair, many of these accounts have a rather selective view of history.

The part that is clearly wrong is treating Bernanke as a bookish academic who got plucked down in the middle of a financial crisis that was not his making. While Bernanke had a distinguished academic career, he had been in the middle of the action in Washington since 2002. That was when he was selected to be a governor of the Fed. He served as a governor at Greenspan’s side until he went to serve as head of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers in June of 2005. After a brief stint as the chief economist in the Bush administration he returned to take over as chair of the Fed in January of 2006.

It was during the period that Bernanke was at the Fed and his tenure in the Bush administration that the housing bubble grew to such dangerous levels. Read more…

Categories: financial crisis

Larry Summers joins the reality-based economics community

January 16, 2014 8 comments

from Dean Baker

In a remarkable departure from earlier versions of Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and top Obama economics adviser has recently been sounding the alarm about “secular stagnation” — a prolonged period of time in which the economy operates below its potential level of output. This discovery may provoke choruses of “duh” from the tens of millions of workers who for years have had the opportunity to live with secular stagnation in the form of unemployment, underemployment or stagnant wages.

But even if Summers’ discovery is not news to most people, it is a huge development nonetheless. Summers is one of the world’s most prominent economists. In the mainstream of the profession it has long been a matter of virtual absolute faith that the economy will tend to sustain full employment levels of output. Any departures from full employment will be quickly corrected by the self-adjusting market, ideally with a helping push from a reduction in interest rates by central banks.

This view seems less credible in the wake of the recession that began more than six years ago. By the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office the economy is still operating at a level of output that is more than six percent below potential GDP, corresponding to a loss in output on the order of $1 trillion a year. The economy is still down more than 8 million jobs from its trend growth path.  And the jobs report released on Friday certainly doesn’t raise hopes we will be closing this gap any time soon.  Read more…

Sharp drop in US unemployment due to people leaving the labor force

January 10, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The headline unemployment rate fell sharply to 6.7 percent in December. However, this is not good news. The drop was almost entirely due to people leaving the labor force as the number of people reported employed in December only rose by 143,000, just enough to keep the employment-to-population ratio constant.

Blacks disproportionately left the labor market, with the labor force participation rate for African Americans dropping by 0.3 percentage points to 60.2 percent, the lowest rate since December of 1977. The rate for African American men fell 0.7 percentage points to 65.6 percent, the lowest on record.

The data on the establishment side was not any brighter with the survey reporting an increase of just 74,000 jobs. Some of this weakness was due to unusually slow growth in health care and restaurant employment. This is likely an anomaly that will be reversed in future months. However, there was also a decline in the index of average weekly hours. This suggests that the economy may be weaker than some of the more recent optimistic accounts indicated.

Categories: The Economy

Economists and astronomers: Why are the former lost in space?

January 4, 2014 11 comments

from Dean Baker

It is remarkable that the public has been convinced that the earth revolves around the sun. This is remarkable because we can all look up in the sky and see the sun revolving around the earth.

Most of us are willing to believe the direct opposite of what we can see with our own eyes because we accept the analysis of the solar system developed by astronomers through many centuries of careful observation. The overwhelming majority of people will never go through the measurements and reproduce the calculations. Rather, our belief that the earth revolves around the sun depends on our confidence in the competence and integrity of astronomers. If they all tell us that the earth in fact orbits the sun, we are prepared to accept this view.

Unfortunately the economics profession cannot claim to have a similar stature. This is both good and bad. It is good because it doesn’t deserve that stature. Economists too often work as hired guns for those with money and power. It is bad because the public needs expertise in economics, just as it needs expertise in medicine and other areas.

Theories for sale  Read more…

Inequality: government is a perp, not a bystander

December 28, 2013 4 comments

from Dean Baker

In his speech on inequality earlier this month President Obama proclaimed that the government could not be a bystander in the effort to reduce inequality, which he described as the defining moral issue of our time. This left millions convinced that Obama would do nothing to lessen inequality. The problem is that President Obama wants the public to believe that inequality is something that just happened. It turns out that the forces of technology, globalization, and whatever else simply made some people very rich and left others working for low wages or out of work altogether. The president and other like-minded people feel a moral compulsion to reverse the resulting inequality. This story is 180 degrees at odds with the reality. Inequality did not just happen, it was deliberately engineered through a whole range of policies intended to redistribute income upward.  Read more…

Is there a stock bubble? Joining the NYT debate

December 9, 2013 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Since the NYT decided to devote a Room for Debate on the question of whether the stock market is currently in a bubble, I thought I should join the party as one of the stock bubble warners from the 1990s. To my mind the story for the overall stock market is a fairly simple one. Look at the ratio of stock prices to trend earnings.

This one doesn’t look too terrifying. Obviously the market is hitting record highs measured in nominal dollars, but if we expect the price to earnings ratio to remain more or less constant over time, then we should expect the nominal value to regularly hit new highs as the economy grows. In this context, an S&P at 1800 doesn’t seem especially scary. The S&P had previously peaked at 1525 back in 2007, six years ago.

Since 2007 the price level is up by roughly 9 percent. If we assume potential growth of 2.3 percent, then the economy’s potential GDP would be 14.6 percent higher today. Read more…

Categories: Bubbles
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