Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unit Labor Costs

One of the creepy things about learning economics is all the technical jargon. Diminishing marginal utility, gross private domestic investment, and the production possibilities frontier are good examples. What the hell are these things? That can be the subject of another post because today I want to focus on another term economists throw around like salmon at the Seattle Fish Market.

Today I want to discuss unit labor costs. Say that 30 times and I promise you and all those within 50 feet of you the best sleep you have had in months. It's better than a My Pillow. To make sure I don’t lose you, let’s rename it ULC. ULC rhymes with sulk but that has no consequence here. 

ULC could be the most important macroeconomic variable in town this year. So you should know her. If you saw ULC sitting alone at the end of a bar, you would ordinarily tip toe quietly in the other direction. But this year, ULC is the Queen of the Ball.

That’s quite a claim. Yet I don’t hear anyone talking about her. Before I am done with you today, I want to convince you that ULC is at the heart of many issues we discuss today – rising wages, rising prices, the next recession, and of course, the size of our new tariffs on Armagnac.

Imagine any product – let’s think about a bottle of JD. Most of the cost of producing one more bottle of JD is what you pay the employees to produce it. This includes their wages and any other earnings they might receive in the way of benefits. Logic suggests that, if everything else is the same, a rise in labor costs means the company will have to charge more for a bottle of JD. If it used to cost $10 to produce another bottle of JD and now it costs $12, then one would expect the price to reflect that cost increase. 

The labor representative will interrupt us now and point to the fact that the extra wage won't lead to a price increase because the JD workers were more productive this year. The price of a bottle of JD depends on the labor cost and the labor productivity.

For example, suppose wages go up 5% this year. Don’t we have to charge more for a bottle of Jack? Nope – it depends on how productive labor was. Suppose workers got really jacked up this year and produced 10% more bottles of Jack. That is, you got 10% more Jack for 5% more money. In that example the cost of labor in each bottle of Jack was lower! Thus they can sell the Jack at a lower price.

ULC is, therefore, a delicious macro concept that summarizes the key factors impacting the cost of goods and service:
  • ULC went up – cost per unit is higher and therefore we ought to raise price (or take lower profits)  
  • ULC went down – cost per unit is lower and therefore we can lower price and be more competitive (or keep prices the same and take higher profits)
  • ULC did not change – cost per unit is the same. Go fishing.
So you can see that ULC is a vital part of the economy and yet most of you thought it meant Underware Latex Creep.  

Here is the most fun part. The graph at the bottom of this life-saving exercise shows you the history of changes in ULC since before Joe Biden was born. I won’t bore you millennials with all that history stuff but you can see that before 1980, ULC was quite the party animal. It was all over the place – rising by almost 13% in 1974 not long after a mere blip of 1% a few years before. Imagine if you were selling Kool-Aid in the front yard and the cost of getting your mom to make the Kool-Aid for you rose by 13% one year. If you passed that cost increase on to your customers, they might decide to go down the road to Peter's house.

Notice that since 1980, ULC became more well-behaved. It has its cycles but they are much less pronounced. The mean change of costs per unit is about 2.5%. Notice also that just about every recession —the grey bars – was preceded by a rising trend in ULC. Clearly, when costs per unit are on the rise the resulting higher prices of goods and services seems juicy – but if this keeps up the economy can no longer handle it.

This brings us to the present. The average change in ULC is remarkably less than 2.5%, and there is no discernible upward trend. After it dropped into negative territory recently, it jumped back to positive territory but there is no clear upward trend. In fact, if you look at behavior since around 2011, you might see a downward trend.

If it ordinarily takes a few years of rising ULC to cause a recession, there is little in this graph to suggest an imminent recession or slowdown in the economy. But aren’t wages beginning to rise faster? Won’t that make ULC jump and signal bad times ahead? Yes, wages might rise but remember ULC is impacted by productivity changes as well. If productivity changes as much or more than ULC – then ULC won’t change at all.

So fasten your seatbelts, kids. This is a race between wage growth and productivity. Which one are you betting on for the next few years?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tariffs and Courage, Guest Post by Charles Trzcinka, Professor of Finance, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University

My brother is losing his job this month because of foreign competition. At his age and with his roots in the community where he lives, it will be a struggle to replace the income. He is exactly the person whose life experiences should drive him to support the protectionism that is flowing out of the White House. He does not. He makes all arguments that economists make about tariffs costing far more than the benefit and weakening the industries that are protected. He certainly is on solid ground. Arguing against free trade is like arguing against evolution. The scientists have accumulated so much evidence that the arguments for protectionism are taken as a demand for welfare or a demonstration of a psychological problem. Moreover, in the case of trade, there is 200- year history of building our economy with free trade— that is having lower tariffs than anyone we trade with. Tariffs are also very anti American who compete in markets around the world. I was in Hungary just after the fall of the communist regime when a British CEO told me that “everywhere in the world where there is money to be made, you will find an American”. Even our universities have benefited from global competition. Unlike, profit-making firms, universities have long had virtually unlimited H1B visas which means there are much fewer restrictions on immigrants. In principle, the result has been lower wages and in practice it has resulted in more competition. The free trade in ideas and people has given Americans far better universities which by any metric are the best in the world. This story repeats in many industries.

We now have an administration that uses rhetoric to encourage the worst protectionist views. President Trump thinks that all trade agreements are “unfair”, that the World Trade Organization is a waste of time, and that trade deficits show that other countries are “taking advantage of us”. In imposing steel and aluminum tariffs, the White House has politicized trade policy and opened itself to furious lobbying efforts. The policy has become more “carve outs galore” than a coherent trade effort.

Ronald Reagan and George Bush used tariffs as a threat to open markets and reduce trade barriers. If the Trump administration moves in this direction it will be strong positive factor for the economy. However, the simplistic statements from the White House have united economists who know that the facts and logic are strongly against these views. While economists differ on how much China cheats and what should be done about it, virtually nobody thinks deficits show anything other than low savings and all agree that trade has built the wealth of this country. Economists who make these arguments often do not have much “skin in the game” and some argue this makes them wrong. Not having a stake in the argument tells us nothing about the truth of the argument and it is too easy and cheap to dismiss the argument for free trade based on who is saying it. Still, it is courageous for someone who is losing his job to agree. My brother is an example of an American who takes personal responsibility seriously and doesn’t look to broad trade protection to save his job. He doesn’t let his personal experience distort his views. Neither should anyone who thinks and votes on the question of tariffs. There are winners and losers for every policy decision and the protectionists need stop imaging a fantasy world where there are no trade-offs. We have built this country with free trade and there is no case for ending it with broad tariffs. Just ask my brother.

Nero Fiddles as Rome Burns

As I was writing last week’s post about Macroeconomic Fuzziness, it occurred to me that there are some things that are not so fuzzy. It not only made me think of Nero but also reminded me of a book written by Herman Hesse titled Journey to the East. A traveler boards a train taking him to a very clear destination. During his travels, however, the traveler gets off and on the train. Somehow the destination got obscured each time, and he found himself lost or moving in the wrong direction. Luckily, he found his way back to the train and moved again towards his destination.

Hesse was writing about spiritual things, but this story says much about macroeconomic policy. There is nothing so fundamental to survival and standard of living as economic growth. Whether the location is Catalonia or California, the truth is that economic growth makes everything easier. This should not be interpreted to say that economic growth is everything. It isn’t. But it is to say that without economic growth, everything else struggles. When the economic pie is growing, we might fight over our share of the increase, but when the economic pizza stays the same, the only way for Jim to get more is for Toni to take less. Like Hesse's traveler, we often get lost and forget that growth is so critical. 

Inasmuch, it is important to keep economic growth on the front burner. It does not have to grow at a lightning pace, but it does have to grow enough to keep us out of each other’s hair. Nowadays, we keep referring to populism. I looked at a couple of definitions of populism and they contained the words “ordinary people”. Populist policy is aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people. It follows that economic growth is a perfect part of populism because there is no way to improve the economic situation of ordinary people without it.

Yet, we hem and haw. Sometimes Republicans appear to be helping rich people at the expense of ordinary people. Sometimes Democrats appear to be assisting minorities at the expense of ordinary people. And these Republicans and Democrats often have good reasons to be doing these things. But if they go too far and ordinary people are injured, then they make their complaints known. And so, we get back on the train and head in the right direction.

That brings us to our present government. I am told repeatedly that this government is populist. But I don’t see it. I do see some smatterings of policy supporting economic growth. I applaud those. But then I see just the opposite. Most recently, the proposals relating to protectionism seem to fly in the face of economic growth. I can’t find a single rational explanation for why one would want to save a few thousand jobs (steel and aluminum) in America while at the same time destroying tens of thousands of jobs (drink and auto manufacturing and other users of steel and aluminum) in America. 

Maybe the political optics of helping some manufacturing workers seems attractive to some politicians but surely this cannot help economic growth. If other countries retaliate against the US, then the gloom spreads to many other US firms that export to those countries.

Or better said, how does protectionism fit the description of populism relating to ordinary people? Or worse, how does protectionism fit in with anything good for the USA?

This story is not hard to understand. Local manufacturers of steel and aluminum want less competition. They want to be freer to charge higher prices. To whom do they charge these higher prices? They charge these higher prices to all those companies in the US that use steel and aluminum to produce Miller Lite beer and Ram Macho Power Wagons. Then these companies pass along these cost increases to ordinary people. But let’s not stop there. Our tariffs on foreign products make countries like Canada and Mexico wonder what it means to have a free trade agreement. Any country wounded by these tariffs will ponder assessing similar taxes against products from the USA. So guess what happens to ordinary people who work to produce goods going to those countries?

The world is a tough place. Companies and countries cheat and skirt the rules of international trade. It is always easy for a politician in any country to promote protectionist policies. But do they really work? We have had subsidies against imported steel in the past. Yet steel is still not viable and needs yet more protection.

I looked at employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the primary metals industry. These numbers include employees in the production of iron, steel, and aluminum. Clearly, this is an industry with declining employment. From 1990 to 2017, the number of jobs decreased by 317,000, or 46%. During that same time, all US manufacturing jobs declined by 5.2 million, or 30%. All private sector jobs in the US, in contrast, increased by 33 million, or 36%. It makes one wonder what can be done in the way of tariffs and protectionism to an industry in job decline for more than a quarter of a century. If protectionism is our game, then how do we best help ordinary people?

That brings me to my final point. There are ways we can create growth. There are ways we can augment and develop a skilled labor force that is the envy of the world. But guess what? The more we get diverted into arguing about the pros and cons of protectionism, the more time we are wasting with respect to moving this parade forward. Is anyone seriously putting forth proposals to permanently expand employment opportunities in the USA today?

            Year               Primary Metals
                                    In thousands
            1990              689
            1995              642
            2000              622
            2005              466
            2010              362
            2015              392
            2017              372


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Lesson 21 Macroeconomic Fuzziness

I had another one of those chats with a nice person who reads my blog. It always starts out with a nice compliment but then winds its way around to the fact that some people cannot understand one thing I say. They count the number of times I use the word JD and then go back to their usual productive lives.

This is both frustrating and understandable. I started learning macro from Professor Bill Shaffer at Georgia Tech in 1965. Since that first course, I have taken an embarrassing number of econ courses in college and graduate school, and I've taught an even larger number of econ courses since starting my career. While some of my econ colleagues were rocket scientists, I always loved the idea that you could help people understand the world better by studying econ.

Because some of my blog friends don’t have a lot of background in econ, I wish I could help them better understand what is happening “out there”. And there is a lot happening. The economy is or isn’t about to implode. The Fed might raise interest rates three or four times in 2018. The Federal government is planning to make its very large debt position even larger. Inflation is going to rise, the value of our stocks is going to fall, and we will all soon be panhandling on the sidewalk in front of Nick’s English Hut.

There is plenty “out there” to discuss. And that’s the problem, or should I say that’s the challenge. Economics has three parts. First, economics wants to provide answers about what is going to happen in the future. Second, to do that, economics must have some basic fundamentals that can be applied to the future. Third, economists are always checking the reliability of these fundamentals by looking backward. If they seemed to hold in the past, then maybe they can be used to think about the future.

Fundamentals? There are lots of them. For example, we believe that if you give a person an extra dollar that person will spend some of it. The marginal propensity to consume (MPC) tells us how much of an extra dollar received will be spent. (Some of the extra dollar goes to taxes and some goes into saving. The rest is spent.) This fundamental is used, among other things, to estimate how much extra spending will be done by people receiving tax breaks in 2018 and beyond.

The MPC is a potentially useful idea but we don’t want to apply this idea if it isn’t true. So we look backwards. Economists do studies to inquire how people really act. Give a dollar to Nolan. Let’s see what he does with it. Here’s a dollar for Ashley, let’s see what she does with it. We won’t all do the same thing with an extra dollar. But studies of the usefulness of the MPC in macroeconomics look to see if it is a reliable indicator of what all of us did when given an extra dollar. Thus, the past can be very useful. How have Americans behaved when given tax cuts in the past? When Americans were given a tax break of $1 billion, did they spend more on goods and services? If so, how much? Looking at more than one tax cut over time and over many families, did they have a reliable spending response?

Fundamentals can be argued about in terms of basic intuition. Focusing on income and spending might be too narrow. And history might find that tax cuts have had different impacts at different times. Thus, we might have a lot to argue about the past. If we can’t all agree about the nature of an economic fundamental and its reliability in the past, then clearly we will have a lot to argue about its application to the future.
Atoms don’t behave like humans. Apply heat to an atom and it behaves according to physical laws. Physical sciences, therefore, are more useful for predicting the future. Social sciences have fundamental laws of behavior but because they involve human behavior, they have less predictability.

We don’t give up trying to predict the future, though, just because Nathan doesn’t act like an atom. People are very curious about the future and are willing to tolerate a less than 100% accurate economic prediction. This underscores why macroeconomics always seems so iffy and controversial and why economic predictions are often off the mark. We spend a lot of time arguing about fundamentals and even more time disagreeing about whether a given fundamental was accepted or not accepted by a given past historical period.

To complicate matters further, we have ideologies mucking up our discussions. If macroeconomics sounds precarious based on past behaviors of fundamentals, this apparent unsoundness is compounded by the fact that we have extreme camps of economists who differ almost as radically as Catholics and Baptists. Conservative economists believe government is an evil that disturbs the natural and good order of things. Liberal economists have faith that the government is necessary to restore order and save us from the greed and stupidity of mere mortals.

This ideological split taints every fundamental and every economic prediction and ensures that each camp will totally disagree with the other ones about everything from peanut better to BB guns.  

This brings us full circle. It is fun and challenging to help some of you understand current macroeconomic issues. To do that takes blog posts that can never lack at least a few ifs, ands, and buts. A discussion of any topic worth writing about will be full of definitions and theories along with attempts to verify them with historic episodes. But history never proves anything perfectly, and ideology always provides ample grounds for near-theological disagreement. So I will ask for your patience and hope that this little post today helps you understand why things always have to sound so complicated.