Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Output Change in the First Half of 2019

The table below is pretty long and ugly. But like a good book, a theme emerges across the many paragraphs and chapters.

The data in the table was pruned from the government source bea.gov that holds mountains of information about the US economy. A regular output of the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) is announcement of the latest number's on national output or what we lovingly call real Gross Domestic Product or real GDP.

While one can find data going back as far as Nancy Pelosi's birthdate, today I pirate mainly very recent information from the first two quarters of this year. The columns identified in the chart by Q1 and Q2 show you that the annualized rate of change of real GDP in the first two quarters of 2019 were 3.1% and 2.1%, respectively.

If you do what I do and read all the crapola that gets written/spoken about such numbers each quarter, you probably shake your head at all the detail and reach for your bottle of Jack and your Perry Como CD. Being an unreformed professor of macroeconomics most of my life, I see my place in the world as being one who can look into all those numbers to find a plot. Of course I'd love to charge you for this valuable service but so far no one has volunteered even a farthing, whatever that is.

So here goes. Let's just focus on the first line of the table. We see that output slowed in Q2 from 3.1% to 2.1%. Hey dudes, at least it was still growing. The AVG 2019 column says that the average growth over those two quarters was 2.6%. The first column AVG 3 YRS says the economy has grown at an average rate of 2.3% over the last three years. I chose 3 years because Nolan is twice that old.

The DIFF column says that the average over the first half of 2019 was a smidge (0.3%) stronger than the average over the last three years. I'm sorry to say this but the BEA spent a ton of money just to tell us that the economy grew a smidge faster in 2019. Incredible. Don't you feel better now?

What else? All those lines below the first one help us to find even more golden nuggets -- or maybe even more of a story. So hold on friends. Maybe there is something here. All those lines below the top line refer to different categories of output. For example, take eight of the rows starting with gross private domestic investment. Those lines report what happened to business spending on such things as plant and equipment and what households were spending on new residences (houses, condos, etc).

I pick out those rows because the AVG DIFF column is very negative in 7 of the 8 parts of investment spending. The only one that was not negative was intellectual property products. The negatives imply that for each of those negative categories, the performance in 2019 was much less than in the three years prior. The -4.6% for business structures reveals that after growing by 1.3% per year in the previous three years, it fell by 3.3% in the first half of 2019. That's a swing of -4.6%.

So while overall real GDP was a yawner in early 2019, we are all wondering what the crappy business investment numbers mean for the future. Will US productivity decline in the future? Will firms cut back even more in the rest of the year? Will this cutback cause a recession? Will Bernie Sanders stop gesturing like a traffic cop in Barcelona? We don't know. But we are watching.

What else? Notice that Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) picked up in the second quarter of 2019 but even that 4.3% growth rate was not enough to make 2019 better than the previous three years. The laggard in PCE was the services component. What will happen during the rest of 2019? Will spending on goods slow or will spending on services increase?

Farther down the table is the data related to international trade--exports and imports. Lots of negatives there in the  DIFF column.

Looking at the first half of 2019 reveals as many questions as it suggests answers. Should we be worried that a recession is coming? From these numbers it's hard to know. But clearly the numbers on investment spending and trade require close attention.

AVG 2019 2019 AVG AVG
3 YRS Q1 Q2 2019 DIFF
Gross domestic product (GDP) 2.3 3.1 2.1 2.6 0.3
Personal consumption expenditures 2.8 1.1 4.3 2.7 -0.1
Goods 3.9 1.5 8.3 4.9 1.0
Durable goods 6.4 0.3 12.9 6.6 0.2
Nondurable goods 2.6 2.2 6.0 4.1 1.5
Services 2.3 1.0 2.5 1.75 -0.5
Gross private domestic investment 2.7 6.2 -5.5 0.35 -2.4
Fixed investment 3.6 3.2 -0.8 1.2 -2.4
Nonresidential 3.8 4.4 -0.6 1.9 -1.9
Structures 1.3 4.0 -10.6 -3.3 -4.6
Equipment 3.4 -0.1 0.7 0.3 -3.1
Intellectual property prods 6.3 10.8 4.7 7.75 1.4
Residential 2.8 -1.0 -1.5 -1.3 -4.1
Change in private inventories NA ......... .......... NA NA
Net exports of goods & svcs NA ......... .......... NA NA
Exports 2.2 4.1 -5.2 -0.6 -2.7
Goods 2.9 4.6 -5.0 -0.2 -3.1
Services 0.8 3.3 -5.6 -1.2 -1.9
Imports 3.7 -1.5 0.1 -0.7 -4.4
Goods 3.8 -2.8 0.2 -1.3 -5.1
Services 3.5 4.5 -0.3 2.1 -1.4
Government Cons. And Inv. 1.4 2.9 5.0 3.95 2.6
Federal 1.4 2.2 7.9 5.05 3.7
National defense 1.1 7.7 2.8 5.25 4.1
Nondefense 1.7 -5.4 15.9 5.25 3.5
State and local 1.4 3.3 3.2 3.25 1.9

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

I Hate Hate

Sometimes I depart from macro so I can vent a bit on other subjects. Today the subject is hate. Grr.

I hate hate.

What a great title for a blog post! Think about it. What does it mean to hate hate?

Notice that the first hate in my short sentence is a verb and the second one is a direct object.

Notice also if hate (the direct object) is something bad, then how can you hate (verb) that? If hating is so bad why do you do it?

So that’s what got me started. Everyone hates hate. But nowadays, more people seem to be hateful!

What is hate? Wikipedia is helpful.
  • Hate is a heavy metal band from Poland but let’s ignore that one.
  • Synonyms for the verb hate: loathe, detest, dislike, greatly abhor, despise, feel hostile toward, find intolerable, recoil from
  • Synonyms for the noun hate: feelings of hate and revenge, detestation, abhorrence, abomination, execration, resentment, hostility
Hatred has no positives. Prolonged hate tends to cause fixation on the hated ones and wastes a lot of time and energy -- and in extreme cases leads to violence or retribution. Which most likely causes more hate, violence and retribution. 

Hatred seems to be out of step with most religions. I don’t know many spiritual people who don’t follow the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Surely hatred is not part of any of those religions. I don’t think Buddha taught people to hate each other.                                                   

So there you go. I can’t really hate hate because I don’t want to hate anything. But I sure want to make it clear that hate ought to be less prevalent today.

No, I am not going to get into the trap today of saying this or that about political parties or their followers. My observation is that some people on both sides of the political spectrum are filled with hatred.

Notice one thing about hatred – it is much easier to do when you perceive that the other (bad) guys hate you. As long as anyone believes there are people who hate them, then the hate party will go on.

It’s a bit like the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma. If Joe thinks Bob is going to rat on him, then he is probably going to rat on Bob. Bob and Joe need a private meeting to agree to not rat on each other.

I think all of us need to have a private meeting and decide we are members of the same human race, and we are killing each other by hating each other.

Rant over. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Policy Persistence and Stupidity

Almost four years ago in August of 2015, I wrote the below blog entitled Humpty Dumpty Monetary Policy.  No insult to Humpty but those clowns at the Fed were wrong in 2015 and they are even "wronger" today.


It is amazing how persistent stupidity can be. We have a new head of the Fed and we have a much stronger economic situation, yet the people at the Fed have decided that the only way to do their business is to run interest rates lower than a limbo dancer in Nassau.

Sure, the Fed spent a little time letting interest rates rise above zero, but that's not exactly what I would call normalcy. Any of you who have seen me after downing my usual nightly supply of JDs might question my ability to know normalcy when I see it -- but any of you who are trying to save for retirement or even for a new back yard trampoline know that zero interest rates are not your friend.

You argue -- Larry the Fed raised rates a jillion times in the last couple of years. Larry retorts. Friends, look at the markets today. The rate on a 10 year government bond is about 2% as I write. 2%! Really! You call that high? Factor in an inflation rate of prices of 2% and you get what? Yes math genius. You get a ZERO return. Factor in an inflation rate of 3% and well I don't want to say anything negative. Hmmm -- so much for that trampoline.

Read the articles in the newspapers lately -- this Fed board member and that board member are sooooo worried about the economy they must consider lowering rates. If zero real rates won't solve the problem, will minus 2%? I think not. Like pushing the blood back into a hole in your arm won't fix your medical problem, -2% interest rates won't do a thing for our problems today. What is wrong with those educated bimbos running the Fed?

And if that isn't bad enough, Pelosi and Trump have finally decided to agree about something. Apparently they both love nude hot tub parties. No just kidding. Yikes, please gouge my eyes out. To what are they agreeing? A government with trillion dollar deficits each year and a national debt soon to exceed the size of the entire economy is better than a Bob Dylan 8-track to them. That is truly sad and dangerous. No insult to Bob Dylan or 8-tracks intended.

Do I sound like I am yelling? I hope not. But come on dudes -- have we ever had a worse Fed and government? Ever?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Recessions and Business Costs

Last week I started a voyage in thinking about how constraints might cause a recession. If the US economy grew especially fast for a while, it would use up resources whose scarcity would create the seeds of the next recession. While there was some evidence to support that view, it clearly was not present for most of the World War II recessions.

So now I try a second approach to recessions. While strong growth could cause resource scarcity, it is possible to measure that inadequacy of resources in terms of their costs. I chose three typical measures of business costs and examined how they changed before the seven recessions: worker earnings, the price of oil, and a broad measure of business input costs known as the producer price index. To measure the buildup of the costs, I took a five-quarter moving average. The table below shows the five-quarter percentage change of each of these costs and adds a fourth column for the sum of them.  

What can we learn from this table?

First, the largest number on the table is the 118.4% for the cost buildup total right before the 1981-82 recession. While most of that came from oil prices, notice that the 7.7% increase for earnings and the 14.3% for PPI are large numbers for those categories over time. One could say that business costs were rising widely and rapidly before that recession.

Only the 2001 recession comes close to the 1981-82 number with a score of 59.2%. The cost rise before that recession was mostly the 53.7% increase in oil prices. The PPI was barely budging (3.7%) and worker earnings were up only (1.8%).

The 1973-74 and 1979-80 recessions are widely known to be oil-induced recessions. But the table does not show that. For one thing, right before both those recessions, earnings and the PPI were rising rapidly. Notice that oil does not appear to be a contributing factor. But that is because of some strange things going on with respect to timing. The 1973-74 recession was famous for the Nixon Wage and Price Controls, which put ceilings on oil prices, among other things. Oil prices and inflation generally soared, but only after the recession had already begun. It took a while for energy prices to build again, but build they did, with the biggest increases coming in 1980 and thereafter.

The 1990-91 and the 1969-70 recessions were preceded by little business cost buildup.

That leaves the big momma recession of 2008-09, and there we see no buildups in cost except for maybe oil. But we know there was much more to that one with respect to housing and finance. 

That leaves us thinking about when the next recession will come. If it comes in 2019 we see only rising oil prices as a main culprit. Our simple look at past recessions suggest that business costs can lead to recessions, but we see very little going on with earnings or the PPI before 2019.

Perhaps the recession will come from well-known risks like trade wars, global factors, or finance. But so far those factors are risks and not real trends. As far as I'm concerned, I see no recession in our near future.

Cost Pressures*

Average                4.2                  11.4         3.7          19.3
* These percentages are for the five quarters before the beginning
quarter of each recession

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Excess and Recession

Two weeks ago  Professor Klemkosky congratulated our US economy for reaching its tenth birthday. I hope you lit 10 candles and sang the traditional song and had at least one JD toast.  It turns out that recessions don’t usually get that old so many of us are wondering just how long this thing can go. I was warned a long time ago that one should not forecast recessions with a calendar. And I won’t today join that crowd and predict a coming economic tsunami.

Biological and medical science helps us to understand why most of us won’t live past 80 much less reach 100.  There exists a lot of science that helps us to explain why our bodies and minds finally get old and cease to function. Sadly, there is no such science to help us understand why expansions do not usually hit their fifth anniversary much less their eleventh. There is, of course, a lot of pop science but like pop music, pop science has its limitations and annoyances.

Consider what seems to be accepted lore when it comes to recessions. Like a runner in the last mile of a marathon, the economy gets pooped because it runs out of gas. The runner keeps asking her body to take more steps, but the process of running the first 25 miles has eliminated a lot of internal resources. The carbs are gone. The fat is gone. The tank gets empty.

Even worse is when the runner tries to catch up to the top runner and sprints to the finish line. The picture is not pretty.

Why not apply this runner stuff to the economy? In that case we would say a recession comes after a time period of strong growth in which we deplete a lot of resources. As we try to keep the economy running hot, it finally simply cannot grow as fast because we have fewer extra resources laying around to bring into the production process. The economy then sags.

It’s a very intuitive narrative. I decided it was time for me to get back into the data. This time I looked at some macro statistics that might shed some light on this resources/recession story. I could have tried a lot of different approaches, but I chose this one. This blog is not a dissertation and it isn’t even a good journal article. So whatever conclusions I draw here today should be subject to a lot of hemming and hawing if not outright laughing and giggling. But it is food for thought and your reactions might lead to subsequent attempts to marshal data relevant to our topic of recessions running out of steam.

The table below assembles some real GDP data for out purposes. I am looking at macroeconomic growth before each of the seven recessions in the USA between 1969 and 2019. In the first column is a number that I calculated to represent the strength of recent macroeconomic growth. I calculated the average of the growth in the economy for the 10 quarters before the start of each recession. The simple idea is that a large number suggests a strong tax on resources before the beginning of the recession. 

Notice that before the 73/74 recession the economy grew by 6 percent per year on average. That’s very strong growth. Notice also that the economy averaged growing at a mere 1.9% per year in the 10 quarters before the beginning of the 81/82 recession.
These  seven numbers in the first column alone do not shed enough light on former growth rates of the economy and a resulting recession. Sometimes the economy grows rapidly before a recession; sometimes it does not. Here is where we could try a lot of other approaches and I chose one.

The second column in the table is the average annual growth rate of the US economy in the 10 quarters before the most current 10 quarters. Comparing column 1 to column 2 let’s us see if the economy grew faster in the latest 10 quarters before each recession. It creates a little more perspective than just looking at column 1. The third column subtracts column 2 from column 1. A negative result means the US economy grew slower in the latest 10 quarters compared to the previous 10. What do these additional numbers tell us?

First, the 1973/74 10 quarter growth average was not only large absolutely but it was much stronger than the 2% annual growth rate prior to that. Clearly there was a strong increase in economic growth before that recession.

Second, the case of the 81/82 recession shows that the 1.9% rate of growth was not only low in the 10 quarters before that recession but it was also very low compared to the annual growth in the previous 10 quarters of 5.3% per year.

These first two points suggest that both stronger and weaker economic growth can precede a recession. The resources issue is thus unresolved.

In four of the seven recessions, the economy slowed in the 10 quarters before the recession compared to the ten quarters before that.

Your minds are spinning. Is this the only way to test if strong or stronger growth causes resource restrictions that lead to recessions? Clearly not. Why choose 10 quarters? What happens to the results if I chose 8? Or 12? Or maybe real GDP is not sufficient for the task. Perhaps we could compare real GDP growth to a measure of total productive capacity like potential Real GDP? Or maybe one could examine prices of key resource inputs like labor or energy.

This case is not closed. But it was fun getting it started. After 10 quarters, is the US economy going to run into resource constraints that lead to a recession? Or is that pop science? If not resource constraints, then what else might cause the eighth recession since the early 1960s. 

Notice I have a line in the table for the 2019 recession. If one started in 2019 it would not be because of resource constraints. The economy has been averaging around 2.6% per year over the last 10 quarters and the last 20 years. I don’t see a recession coming because of that.


Recession    Average Annual Change Real GDP 
Years    10 QTRS**         10 QTRS***    Diff
69/70                3.7                             5.6                -1.9
73/74                6.0                             2.0                 4.0
80                     4.7                             4.1                 0.6
81/82                1.9                             5.3                -3.4
90/91                3.8                             3.9                -0.1
01                     4.4                             4.4                  0.0
08/09                2.4                             3.7                -1.3
19*                   2.6                             2.6                  0.0

* 2019 is not a recession year. This line assumed a recession began in that year.   
** 10 Quarters before the recession began
*** 10 Quarters previous                 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Tax the Rich

Last week there seemed to be a renewed effort by several people, including some very rich ones, to advance the idea that we need to increase taxes on the rich. Of particular interest is a wealth tax which would be added to the existing structure of income, property, inheritance, and other taxes.

The basic idea is that the rich are, well, rich. I recall the comic book character Stooge McDuck. He was very rich and he loved to enjoy many moments in his vault playing with his money. That image of the rich apparently has stuck with a lot of people these days and it makes it a lot easier to want to remove some of those coins from Scrooge's vault.

But I kid of course. One too many JDs this morning and all that.

But the truth is that the nation or at least some of us seem very interested in helping the rich part with their income and assets. The main idea seems to be that the rich won’t miss their money very much and there is a ton of good we can do with the resources. We can write off student loans, help the poor, save the planet, and much more.

So I wanted to think about all this a little more today. The first point an economist might make is to bring up the idea of the diminishing marginal utility of income. Let’s call this DMU since it is a huge mouthful to keep saying that over and over. DMU is a real thing and most freshmen at most universities are harangued about DMU by their wonderfully charming and entertaining graduate teaching assistants. It is a simple idea. If you are poor and I give you $10,000 dollars, you will be happier. If I give you $10k more on top of that, you will be happier but the increase in your happiness is not as big as the first tranche. By the time I have given you $1 million, the next $10k is hardly noticeable – the extra satisfaction you derive is negligible.

So it is true that by taking more taxes from the very rich, they might not notice it a lot. DMU explains why.

You cannot say that I didn’t start out on the left foot. But from here it gets more sketchy.

What happens when you take money from the rich?

The rich definitely give a lot of money to charity. What if the rich decide that they only want to spend a given amount for charitable private and national purposes and reduce their charitable giving by the extra amount of the taxes? Think of the United Way or your local Boys & Girls Club. What if we get free student loans but we have to reduce the activities of local charities?

What else does Scrooge do with all his coins? For one thing, we know that the rich don’t really bathe in vaults of money. They stay rich because they invest their money wisely – or at least try to do so. They often earn handsome rewards, but do the rest of us benefit from their investments?

I would think we do.

These investments can be directly spent on bricks and mortar – maybe a factory in your town.

These investments can show up in saving accounts in banks – and that money is loaned when you buy a car or a company borrows money to modernize operations, do research into new technology, or buy new equipment.

That money goes into bond markets meaning that companies and governments have a pool of funds for their needs, and this puts pressure on interest rates to stay low.

Much of the rich’s money goes into stock markets. Our pensions and other assets enjoy appreciation and growth when there is a strong demand for stocks.

There is the incentive issue too. We enjoy the fruits of entrepreneurship in small and large companies. We love it when companies solve problems, and we get better products and services. We love it when competitive companies innovate and reduce the prices we pay for all sorts of goods and services. Much of those activities come because capitalists love to improve things -- but it also comes because they love making money that they can use for all sorts of things. Paying taxes reduces how much they get to keep. Is there a point at which tax rates get so high that they would rather avoid all the pain of invention and sit all day at Peet's? Or go across the street and have a JD at TG?

You get the main point here. Whether it is local charities or various other uses of the money held by the rich, there are very widespread and measurable benefits to society.

I know the rich also use their money to buy yachts and caviar and spoil their rotten children. But another yacht creates employment and even a weekend in Vegas provides jobs for dealers, Uber drivers, and cleaning personnel. I don't believe for a minute that the rich do not enjoy incredible lifestyles -- but that is not the whole story. 

What’s left to say has to do with the idea that our government can use the money in even better ways than the rich. Sure we might have a little less of this or that when the rich change their priorities – but just imagine all the good that will come if incomes are more equal, we write off student loans, we give people better education, and so on.

Here is where we should all be from Missouri the Show Me State. We all learned about snake oil salesmen. We are taught that snake oil can sound really enticing. Is it not possible that those who speak the loudest about taxing the rich are people who will themselves gain power and riches in doing so? Why do we trust them so much when they have so much to gain?

Worse than that is just the reality of government in the face of immense and ongoing challenges. Do we really trust those clowns to do better than the last batch of clowns? Why now, with a little more money, will we solve problems of education, poverty, and environment? Will a little more money suddenly solve what decades of money has not been able to eliminate much less reduce? 

Do you really believe that adding even more money into poverty programs is going to miraculously successfully reduce inequality of income? Have we really figured out how to use public money to reduce the incidence of poverty when decades of poverty programs have done nothing but increase the rolls of poverty? Is it really fair to write off the loans of mostly people taking graduate work at private institutions when we didn’t do that for past generations of students? Will we be willing and able to provide such education for free for all future ones?

I’m not rich and I don’t care if we tax the rich. But if we do, I’d like to make sure that the net result is positive. The rich will reorient how they use their money. Are we sure those changes won’t make people worse off? Clearly the uses of the new monies could have wonderful results. But are these snake oil salespeople bent on convincing us that they have learned something new that will really reduce our nation’s problems? I haven't heard it yet. You? Show me how and why it will work this time. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Ten Years And Counting by Guest Blogger Robert C. Klemkosky, Professor Emeritus of Finance, IU Kelley School of Business

This July, the U.S. will set a record for the longest economic expansion in 100 years, assuming a recession doesn’t start, which is highly unlikely. Since WWII, there have been 11 economic expansions that have lasted an average of 58 months; the longest one previously was 120 months from 1991 to 2001 and the shortest 12 months from 1980-81. The current expansion is more than twice as long as the U.S. norm but it’s nowhere near a world record. China and Australia are in their 28th year, and India and Taiwan both have experienced more than 20 years of economic expansion. Several European countries and South Korea and Japan have also experienced economic expansions of more than 10 years.

While this U.S. expansion has longevity, it has lacked rigor in terms of economic growth; the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the final output of goods and services, has been an anemic 2.2% annually, the slowest of any economic expansion since WWII. The expansion has benefitted some sectors of the economy more than others: Jobs have been created for 104 consecutive months as more than 20 million jobs have been added to the workforce. This has probably been the most notable achievement of the current expansion. The unemployment rate of 3.6% is at a 50-year low, down from 10% in 2010, and the 7.45 million job openings are at the highest level relative to unemployment of 5.82 million since records began in 2000. At the end of 2009, there were 15.1 million unemployed and only 2.49 job openings. The manufacturing sector has added 1.1 million jobs since 2009. There is a worker shortage.

That’s the good news. But wage growth has been anemic; average hourly earnings averaged 2-2.5% for much of the expansion and only recently have been above 3% but still below the 50-year average of 4.1%. As a result, labor’s share of national income has fallen from 69.9% to 66.4%. Almost half the increase in jobs is due to those aged 65 and older, some because the new 65 is the old 55 but others based on need. The labor force participation rate at 82.1% for those aged 25-54 is below 2007 levels, providing some slack in the labor force.

While Main Street may not have prospered, the net worth of households has surged from $57.8 trillion to $108.6 trillion in the last decade. This has been due to appreciating stock and home prices, and bonds to a lesser extent; the median price of an existing home has increased from $182,000 in 2009 to $277,700 today, and the S&P 500 has risen 336% since March 2009. The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond fell from above 4% in June 2008 to 2.05% today; as yields fell, bond prices increased, creating wealth for bond holders. This wealth creation has not been distributed evenly throughout society as only 54% of households own stocks and 64.3% own homes. This has created record high wealth inequality in the country. Today, according to the World Inequality Database, the top 0.1% of U.S. households control 20% of U.S. wealth, the top 1% control 36% and the top 10% control 74%. This means the bottom 90% control 26% of the wealth, the bottom 50% have zero wealth and the bottom 30% have negative wealth. The middle class, the middle 40%, control 8% of the wealth. Wealth inequality will be a major political issue going forward.

There are several reasons for the wealth inequality. One, there is also income inequality, which fosters wealth inequality. And second, the Fed’s policy of near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing, the purchasing of more than $3.5 trillion of U.S. Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, has kept interest rates at historically low levels. This has supported high stock and bond prices as well as housing prices. The Fed has pursued this loose monetary policy because of the anemic economic growth and low inflation. The Fed set a 2% inflation target in 2012 because they were worried about deflationary pressures and lowered inflationary expectations. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the personal-consumption expenditure price index, has been at or above 2% only eight months since then, and core inflation, excluding volatile food and energy prices, has exceeded 2% only two months. The U.S. has experienced moderate inflation for the last two decades and especially during the current economic expansion, which has helped real (inflation-adjusted) wages.

Debt was a major cause of the 2008-09 financial crisis especially in the household and financial sectors. One would think that a lesson would be learned from the financial crisis but debt is at an all-time high of 230% of GDP. Most of this increase in debt relative to GDP can be attributed to the federal government and corporate sectors. Government public debt has more than doubled from 34.8% of GDP in 2007 to 76.8% in fiscal year 2018. It used to be that the government was supposed to run fiscal surpluses during economic expansions but that hasn’t happened since fiscal years 1999-2001. 

The U.S. government fiscal deficit is heading toward a trillion dollars per fiscal year with no political will to reduce it. The Congressional Budget Office projects federal debt to be 145% of GDP by 2050, almost another doubling. As The Wall Street Journal recently headlined, “Washington Puts Aside Fears and Embraces Debt.” U.S. non-financial business debt rose to $15 trillion in 2018 from $9 trillion in 2007, taking advantage of historically low interest rates. They have made government and business debt manageable thus far, but a large upward spike will be painful. The financial sector has reduced its debt and leverage due to new laws and regulations. The household sector has more debt today but only 76.4% of GDP versus 98% in 2008. Mortgage debt, which was the problem during the 2001-07 economic expansion, is about the same, but student, auto, and credit card debt is much larger today. Households have had a personal savings rate of 7.01% during this expansion versus 4.68% during the last one from 2001-07. Historically low interest rates have forced higher savings rates to overcome what some refer to as financial repression for savers, encouraging more risk taking.

While the U.S. is celebrating 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth, many are in no mood to celebrate as the fruits of the expansion have not been equally distributed. This has led to populism, anti-globalism and losing faith in capitalism. A recent Gallup Poll showed only 45% of young adults had a favorable view of capitalism versus 51% for socialism. Among all adults, 56% have a favorable view of capitalism, the lowest since 2010.

An economic recession does not appear imminent so the U.S. will set a new record for the longevity of an economic expansion. The underperformance of economic growth for this expansion may be the primary reason for its longevity; there are no price pressures or imbalances and bubbles in the economy or financial markets. The question is whether 2% economic growth is the new norm or can be ramped up higher as in 2018. Many, like Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, believe the U.S. economy is in a period of secular stagnation with sustainable subpar growth. The Fed also believes the economic growth potential is around 2.0%, based on slow growth in the workforce plus subpar growth in productivity.

How and when will it end? It is difficult to determine whether this expansion is mid-cycle or late-cycle; the only certainty is what Yogi Berra may have said: “It’s later than it used to be.” Economic expansions don’t normally die of old age; it takes outside forces like the Fed raising interest rates and starting a run-of-the-mill cyclical recession, supply side shocks like oil in the 1970s or a financial crisis like that of 2007-09 to end an expansion. Many economists and CEOs believe the risks of a recession are growing. When a recession does occur, the public will not know about it officially for six or more months. The National Bureau of Economic Research has a Business Cycle Dating Committee that will decide when it starts. Many believe that two quarters of negative economic growth automatically qualifies as a recession, but there is no such rule of thumb in the U.S. The committee will look at many data points and metrics. Yogi Berra may also have said, “It's hard to predict, especially the future,” as economists don’t have a good record of forecasting recessions before they happen. If it happens, let’s hope the recession is short and mild. They are a normal part of capitalism.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Fed's Duplicitous Goals

Duplicitous is my big word for the day. According to Wikipedia, "Someone who is duplicitous is almost like two people, saying one thing but then doing something very different, even contradictory." You might called them two-faced.

When the Fed said recently that they are worried about inflation getting too low, I think they are being duplicitous. The Fed doesn't give a rat's patoot about low inflation. The Fed cares about one thing and one thing only -- growth slowdowns and recessions. That's it. Yet they persist in this nonsense about inflation being too low.

Why would the Fed want to be duplicitous? Let's back up. The Fed is the institution in this country responsible for monetary policy. Monetary policy is generally thought of as one of the most important components of a country's macroeconomic policy. The government uses its fiscal policy to achieve macroeconomic goals. The Fed uses monetary policy. Ok? Big gulp of JD.

Every institution has goals. The Boys & Girls Club wants to provide a safe place where kids can go after school to learn sports and games. Your local neighborhood bar creates a nice place for you to go after work so you can have a drink and unwind with your friends.

The Fed has macroeconomic goals so it can provide a non-inflationary growing economy. The Fed has been historically clear that it has two goals -- assist economic growth and keep inflation low. Notice -- keep inflation low, not high. That sounds nice, but like a juggler with only one arm, it is very challenging if not impossible to "kill two birds with just one stone". And that's the rub with Fed policy -- it only has one tool or instrument of monetary policy.

If the economy is growing too slowly or is contracting, the Fed tries to juice it up with lower interest rates. If the economy is growing too fast and inflation rises, it tries to slow things down with higher interest rates. Interest rate control is the one-hand or the single instrument of the Fed. That's all it has. One hand for juggling the economy.

Notice that the whole story focuses on economic growth -- keeping it from growing too slow or from growing too fast. Inflation comes into the story but only because it is the other side of the coin. The Fed doesn't care a whit about inflation. It cares about growth.

When the illustrious leaders of the Fed tell us inflation is too low during a time period when output is actually strong, it makes no sense. It is a trick to divert your eyes from what they are really doing. What they are really doing is playing national savior. The problem is not that economic growth is low -- the problem is that they think they can look into their crystal ball and know that without their intervention, economic growth might slow in the future.

It sounds nice, right? They have managed the economy so well today that they are now ready to manage the future too. Unfortunately, they don't know the future any more than they know when the next earthquake will hit Seattle. Surely one is coming but I doubt anyone knows when.

It is these errors in timing that usually cause the most havoc. Diddle around all day and then get on the I5 at 5 pm, and you will understand what I mean. The Fed is famous for worrying so much about future economic growth slowing that they try to keep interest rates low much longer than they really should. Virtually every period of dangerously high inflation in the US in the last 50 years came because the Fed fed the economy's furnace with money too long. Then they play the frying pan/fire game. Fight weak growth one day. Cause inflation. Fight inflation the next. Cause a recession.

What is the duplicitous point here? The point is that the Fed does not have a mandate or a policy goal to prevent inflation from falling. In fact, I doubt that they really believe that inflation will fall so low as to become a problem. What they do believe is that the rate of economic growth might fall in the future. But they don't want to admit that. It seems more responsible to be fighting low inflation today than to be attacking a predicted future slowdown. That doesn't seem more responsible to me, but then I don't work at the Fed.

I wish they would either be more honest or just quit doing that stupid stuff. Lower interest rates after a decade of low interest rates is not going to be the solution to any of our problems, much less the next recession.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Fed, Market Interest Rates, and the Coming Recession

The Fed is in a quandry these days. They were having a perfectly nice day raising interest rates as it seemed the economy was strong enough to tolerate higher rates. In early 2016, the Federal Funds Rate (FFR) was near zero so what harm could it do to move that rate a smidgen? The red line in the graph below shows the FFR and you can see how the Fed raised it through 2018. It reached a little above 2.25%, not particularly high by national standards. So why not keep raising the rate to maybe 3% or 4%?

Note: The FFR is usually considered an instrument of the monetary policy controlled by the Fed. But the FFR is connected through markets to the interest rates on lots of other assets so when the FFR goes up, it usually drags up many of those other rates. In that way, the Fed influences a broad spectrum of interest rates. Among those assets are Treasury bonds with a maturity of 10 years. The interest rate or yield on the 10-year Treasury is often taken as a gauge of all market interest rates. When the FFR is higher than the 10-year Treasury rate, we call this unusual situation an inversion. End of note.

The graph below explains the hesitancy to raise rates further. Consider the far left side of the graph. Notice the FFR hit the range of 6.5%. Notice also that the FFR rose well above a key market interest rate -- the return on a 10-year government bond. Finally, notice that a recession, as indicated by the grey shaded area, following this inversion of rates.

Move ahead to the time period after 2006 and you see another similar rise in the FFR and an inversion of the FFR rate above the 10-year yield. Bam!, another recession. In this case the FFR maxed out at a little over 5%, and that was quite an increase from the 1% rate that prevailed before the policy to raise the FFR.

Just looking back over the last 20 years or so, we come away with the idea that large increases in the FFR that result in the FFR being higher than the 10-year Treasury rate can lead to recessions. Now we see what looks like the same phenomenon happening again. We see the FFR rising after 2016. We also see we haven't had a recession for quite a while. And we see the 10-year rate starting to fall. There is no real inversion yet but if you extrapolate the lines, you might see one soon. If you looked up these rates on Friday June 14, the FFR range was 2.25% to 2.5% and the 10-year yield was 2.0%. That looks like an inversion to me.

So where is the recession? The answer is that the recession is hiding somewhere near my last glass of JD. Where did I put that thing? Or maybe the inversion-thing is not as reliable as the graph indicates?After all, recessions have always been pretty hard to predict. Maybe there is more to it?

Can the graph help? For one thing, at 2.25%, the FFR is not nearly as high as the 5-6% levels that preceded the last two recessions. For another thing, with the market rate at 2.1%, that is much lower than the 10-year Treasury rates prior to the last two recessions. And rates today have shown no real discernible rise. Rates have bobbled around since 2012, and the market rate today is no higher than a lot of dates since 2012 and certainly not much higher than the rest of the months since 2012. If you compare today's market rates to those before 2012, today's rates look modest.

Just looking at the FFR and a key market interest rate, therefore, does not necessarily proclaim the coming of the next recession. Of course, recessions have never been easy to understand or predict. A housing crisis had a lot to do with the last one and in the past, all sorts of things from oil price shocks  to anchovies dying have precipitated recessions. Today has no shortage of risky trends that could set off the next one. Whether Fed policy can or could set off the next one is no sure thing. Maybe they should just stick with their plan to raise rates to normal levels?

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Saving in the USA

Lassie, the Lone Ranger, and Superman save damsels and others in distress. I have two dear friends who similarly are trying to save me from an inevitable date with JD and the devil. But that kind of saving is not what I am writing about today.

My favorite part of teaching macro is when we discuss trade deficits. A very unobvious point is how the imbalance between national saving and investment causes trade imbalances – deficient saving leading to trade deficits. President Trump is correct to try to stop unfair trade but what he may be missing is that we are our own worst enemy. Our distinct lack of saving in this country is the culprit behind our trade deficits.

Of course a lack of saving disturbs our internal domestic economy too when saving is insufficient to meet the demands of borrowers. We call this crowding out when saving insufficiency leads to constrained business investment and lower spending in the economy. If foreigners decide to save here, that helps, but then we get the problem above as foreign savers have to buy dollars to save here and that causes the value of the dollar to rise and leads to a larger trade deficit. If only Lassie, the Lone Ranger, and Superman could help us learn how to save money! What a wonderful world it would be.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has lot of macro numbers, so I went there to find saving data. What I found is organized in some tables below.

My point today is that we have a major problem with saving in the USA. The top table is the main table as it presents net saving. Underscore the word net. Net savings are calculated when you subtract the uses of saving from the gross amount saved. (You will find uses of saving in the second table and gross saving in the third one.)

Gross savings is what happens when households, businesses, and governments don’t spend all their income. Think of them putting this excess in the bank. Uses of saving gets at the idea that households, firms, and governments want to borrow some of that money they put into banks. Tuna might have a good year and sock away some dough. Peter needs a new Tesla. Lady Diane won’t let him empty his piggy bank so he goes to the bank to borrow some money.

The top table shows you net saving – gross saving minus uses of saving. A nation likes to have a big positive number for net saving. The first column shows you contributions to net saving from households, firms, and governments in 2000.

When the gross amount of savings just equals the uses of saving, we have a nice balance. What I referred to above is the problems created in countries when the sources are always too low relative to the uses of saving.

Notice that net saving equaled $616 billion in 2000. Net saving as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was about 5.9% in that year. Most of that amount was contributed by households, but domestic businesses and the Federal Government each made positive contributions in 2000. State and local governments were the only scofflaws that year with net saving equal to -$41 billion.  

Let’s see what happened in the past 18 years. In 2018, net savings was less than in 2000 at $599.2 billion. Net saving shrunk to 2.9% of GDP.  That is, in terms of GDP it was half of its former self. It recovered from being -2.5% in 2009, but that was an unusual and tough year.

Look at the 2018 column of the top table. Notice what changed. Households and business firms were contributing much more to positive net savings compared to 2000. The government is the main reason we changed. The federal government went from plus $156 billion to minus $986 billion. What?! Hand me the JD barrel please. 

Is it really possible that the Federal government could have a $1.1 trillion swing in net saving? If you want to lump in state and local governments, then add another $200 billion to the swing – for a total swing of $1.3 trillion from 2000 to 2018.

Politicians in all your favorite parties are whistling in the wind as they get you riled up about how unfair China is and whether Trump didn’t pet his dog enough last week. Don’t fall for that crap. Your favorite pols are a bunch of spending fools who know we aren’t smart enough to catch them at their nefarious schemes. This is a scheme, and both parties are guilty. Why do we let them get away with all this? Huge government deficits! Huge trade deficits! When will it end?

Table. Source www.bea.gov
Net Saving
Domestic Business
Households & Institutions
Federal Govt
S&L Govt
Uses of Saving
Domestic Business
Households & Institutions
Federal Govt
S&L Govt
Gross Saving
Domestic Business
Households & Institutions
Federal Govt
S&L Govt