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October 22, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Paul Krugman: The Chinese Disconnect

"China is stealing other peoples' jobs":

The Chinese Disconnect, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Senior monetary officials usually talk in code. So when Ben Bernanke ... spoke recently about Asia, international imbalances and the financial crisis, he didn't specifically criticize China's outrageous currency policy.
But he didn't have to: everyone got the subtext. China's bad behavior is posing a growing threat to the rest of the world economy. The only question now is what the world — and, in particular, the United States — will do about it.
Some background: The value of China's currency, unlike, say, the value of the British pound, isn't determined by supply and demand. Instead, Chinese authorities enforced that target by buying or selling their currency in the foreign exchange market — a policy made possible by restrictions on the ability of private investors to move their money either into or out of the country.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with such a policy, especially in a still poor country whose financial system might all too easily be destabilized by volatile flows of hot money. ... The crucial question, however, is whether the target value of the yuan is reasonable. ...
Many economists, myself included, believe that China's asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China's insistence on keeping the yuan/dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.
Although there has been a lot of doomsaying about the falling dollar, that decline is actually both natural and desirable. America needs a weaker dollar to help reduce its trade deficit, and it's getting that weaker dollar as nervous investors, who flocked into the presumed safety of U.S. debt at the peak of the crisis, have started putting their money to work elsewhere.
But China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.
And that's a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere. The biggest victims, by the way, are probably workers in other poor countries. In normal times, I'd be among the first to reject claims that China is stealing other peoples' jobs, but right now it's the simple truth.
So what are we going to do?
U.S. officials have been extremely cautious about confronting the China problem, to such an extent that last week the Treasury Department, while expressing "concerns," certified in a required report to Congress that China is not — repeat not — manipulating its currency. They're kidding, right?
The thing is, right now this caution makes little sense. Suppose the Chinese were to do what Wall Street and Washington seem to fear and start selling some of their dollar hoard. Under current conditions, this would actually help the U.S. economy by making our exports more competitive.
In fact, some countries, most notably Switzerland, have been trying to support their economies by selling their own currencies on the foreign exchange market. The United States, mainly for diplomatic reasons, can't do this; but if the Chinese decide to do it on our behalf, we should send them a thank-you note.
The point is that with the world economy still in a precarious state, beggar-thy-neighbor policies by major players can't be tolerated. Something must be done about China's currency.


"The Death-Defying Dollar"

Barry Eichengreen says the dollar isn't dead yet:

The death-defying dollar, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, NY Times: The blogosphere is abuzz with reports of the dollar's looming demise. The greenback has fallen against the euro by nearly 15% since the beginning of the summer. Central banks have reportedly slowed their accumulation of dollars in favor of other currencies. ...
The first thing to say about this is that one should be skeptical about ... predictions ... concerning the near term. Our models are, to put it bluntly, useless for predicting currency movements over a few weeks or months. ...
Over periods of several years, our models do better. Over those time horizons, the emphasis on the need for the US to export more and on the greater difficulty the economy will have in attracting foreign capital are on the mark. These factors give good grounds for expecting further dollar weakness.
The question is, Weakness against what? Not against the euro, which is already expensive and is the currency of an economy with banking and structural problems that are even more serious than those of the US. Not against the yen, which is the currency of an economy that refuses to grow.
Thus, for the dollar to depreciate further, it will have to depreciate against the currencies of China and other emerging markets. Their intervention in recent weeks shows a reluctance to let this happen. But their choice boils down to buying US dollars or buying US goods. The first option is a losing proposition.
In the longer run, Opec will shift to pricing petroleum in a basket of currencies. ... It hardly makes sense for it to denominate oil prices in the currency of only one of its customers. And central banks, when deciding what to hold as reserves, will surely put somewhat fewer of their eggs in the dollar basket.
Beyond this, the dollar isn't going anywhere. It is not about to be replaced by the euro or the yen, given that both Europe and Japan have serious economic problems of their own. The renminbi is coming, but not before 2020, by which time Shanghai will have become a first-class international financial center. And, even then, the renminbi will presumably share the international stage with the dollar, not replace it.
The one thing that could precipitate the demise of the dollar would be reckless economic mismanagement in the US. One popular scenario is chronic inflation. But this is implausible. ... There may be a temptation to inflate away debt held by foreigners, but the fact is that the majority of US debt is held by Americans, who would constitute a strong constituency opposing the policy.
The other scenario is that US budget deficits continue to run out of control. Predictions of outright default are far-fetched. But high debts will mean high taxes. The combination of loose fiscal policy and tight monetary policy will mean high interest rates, sluggish investment, and slow growth. Foreigners – and residents – might well grow disenchanted with the currency of an economy with these characteristics.
Mark Twain ... once responded to accounts of his ill health by writing that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." He might have been speaking about the dollar. For the moment, the patient is stable, external symptoms notwithstanding. But there will be grounds for worry if he doesn't commit to a healthier lifestyle.


"The Growing Case for a Jobless Recovery"

Each year, Tim Duy organizes the Oregon Economic Forum, and this year he invited David Altig of the Atlanta Fed to talk about monetary policy. I'll be discussing fiscal policy, and one of the questions I'll address is whether more stimulus is needed. The poor condition of job markets will be a key part of that discussion, and this post of David's at macroblog provides additional evidence that the odds of a jobless recovery are increasing:

The growing case for a jobless recovery, by David Altig: The Wall Street Journal repeats the unhappy news:

"Companies across the economy are holding off on hiring even as the profit outlook improves, amid economic uncertainty and their own success at raising productivity in rough waters.

"Hiring always lags behind in economic recoveries, but the outlook this time is worse, many economists say. Most forecasters now expect a prolonged period of high unemployment, even though the government is expected to report next week that the economy grew in the third quarter, after four quarters of contraction."

I'd like to be able to contradict what most forecasters expect, but we at the Atlanta Fed have been building the case for a similar outcome on macroblog. Here are few salient points from previous posts.

Job opportunities are scarce. (Oct. 14, 2009)

"At the end of August there were estimated to be fewer than 2.4 million job openings, equal to only 1.8 percent of the total filled and unfilled positions—a new record low."

This development could, of course, turn around as business activity picks up, but there is more than a little evidence that some structural impediments are afoot.

Job losses have been disproportionately concentrated in small businesses. (Oct. 6, 2009)

As Melinda Pitts pointed out a few weeks back, businesses with fewer than 50 employees account for about one third of net employment gains in expansions. They have accounted for about 45 percent of job losses since the beginning of this recession. Given that these are the types of businesses most likely to be dependent on bank lending—and given that bank lending does not appear poised for a rapid return to being robust—the prognosis for an employment recovery in these businesses is a question mark.

The share of workers reporting that they have been involuntarily cut back to part-time is at a recorded high. (Aug. 14, 2009)

"… the increase in people reporting that they are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time is considerably higher in this recession than in past recessions. Although the increase in these workers has moderated some since the spring of this year, the number of people in the category of working part-time for economic reasons remains at 8.8 million, well above the level of past contractions in both absolute and relative terms."

One potential implication of this fact is that firms probably have the capacity to expand production without hiring new workers (or increasing worker productivity). All these firms have to do is give more hours to existing workers, who have indicated they would be plenty eager to have them. Good for them—and good for GDP growth—but not much help on the employment front.

Here is one additional concern that we have not previously emphasized.

The percentage of employee separations labeled permanent is at a recorded high.

Underneath the usual total unemployment numbers are the reasons an individual is unemployed: You are on temporary layoff; you quit your job; you have reentered the labor market and have yet to find a job; or you are entering the job market for the first time and have yet to find a job. Or, finally, you have been permanently separated from your previous employer, who has no expectation of hiring you back.

The last category is the dominant reason for unemployment at this time. That might not seem surprising, but it actually is. Never, in the six recessions preceding the latest one, did permanent separations account for more than 45 percent of the unemployed. The current percentage stands at 56 percent as of September and appears to be still climbing:

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Of course, none of this is proof positive that we are in for a "jobless recovery," but, to me, the odds appear to be increasing.

I wish I would have had the last graph when I made up the slides (pdf) for the presentation.


"The United States has Proved to be the Biggest Laggard in the World"

Jeff Sachs says "America has acted irresponsibly since signing the climate treaty in 1992":

King coal's climate policy: Will the US prove to be the world's last holdout?, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate: The United Nations Climate Change Treaty, signed in 1992, committed the world to "avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system." Yet, since that time, greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.
The United States has proved to be the biggest laggard in the world, refusing to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or to adopt any effective domestic emissions controls. ... There are several reasons for US inaction – including ideology and scientific ignorance – but a lot comes down to one word: coal. No fewer than 25 states produce coal, which not only generates income, jobs, and tax revenue, but also provides a disproportionately large share of their energy. ...
Since addressing climate change is first and foremost directed at reduced emissions from coal – the most carbon-intensive of all fuels – America's coal states are especially fearful about the economic implications of any controls (though the oil and automobile industries are not far behind). ...
Under the US Constitution, domestic legislation ... requires a simple majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate... Getting 50 votes for a climate-change bill (with a tie vote broken by the vice president) is almost certain.
But opponents of legislation can threaten to filibuster..., which can be ended only if 60 senators support bringing the legislation to a vote. ... Securing 60 votes is a steep hill to climb. ...[O]ne analysis counts 50 likely Democratic "Yes" votes and 34 Republican "No" votes, leaving 16 votes still in play. Ten of the swing votes are Democrats, mainly from coal states; the other six are Republicans who conceivably could vote with the president and the Democratic majority.
Until recently, many believed that China and India would be the real holdouts in the global climate-change negotiations. Yet China has announced a set of major initiatives – in solar, wind, nuclear, and carbon-capture technologies – to reduce its economy's greenhouse-gas intensity.
India, long feared to be a spoiler, has said that it is ready to adopt a significant national action plan... These actions put the US under growing pressure to act. With developing countries displaying their readiness to reach a global deal, could the US Senate really prove to be the world's last great holdout?
Obama has tools at his command to bring the US into the global mainstream on climate change. First, he is negotiating side deals with holdout senators to cushion the economic impact on coal states and to increase US investments in the research and development, and eventually adoption, of clean-coal technologies.
Second, he can command the Environmental Protection Agency to impose administrative controls on coal plants and automobile producers... The administrative route might turn out to be even more important than the legislative route.
The politics of the US Senate should not obscure the larger point: America has acted irresponsibly since signing the climate treaty in 1992. It is the world's largest and most powerful country, and the one most responsible for the climate change to this point, it has behaved without any sense of duty – to its own citizens, to the world, and to future generations.
Even coal-state senators should be ashamed. Sure, their states need some extra help, but narrow interests should not be permitted to endanger our planet's future. It is time for the US to rejoin the global family.


links for 2009-10-21

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