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February 17, 2014

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Paul Krugman: Barons of Broadband

Posted: 17 Feb 2014 12:24 AM PST

We should be more worried than we are about monopoly power:

Barons of Broadband , by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week's big business news was the announcement that Comcast ... has reached a deal to acquire Time Warner... If regulators approve the deal, Comcast will be an overwhelmingly dominant player in the business...
So let me ask two questions about the proposed deal. First, why would we even think about letting it go through? Second, when and why did we stop worrying about monopoly power?
On the first question, broadband Internet and cable TV are already highly concentrated industries... Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons...
And there are good reasons to believe ... that monopoly power has become a significant drag on the U.S. economy as a whole.
There used to be a bipartisan consensus in favor of tough antitrust enforcement. During the Reagan years, however, antitrust policy went into eclipse, and ever since measures of monopoly power... have been rising fast.
At first, arguments against policing monopoly power pointed to the alleged benefits of mergers in terms of economic efficiency. Later, it became common to assert that the world had changed in ways that made all those old-fashioned concerns about monopoly irrelevant. Aren't we living in an era of global competition? Doesn't ... creative destruction ... constantly tear down old industry giants and create new ones?
The truth, however, is that many goods and especially services aren't subject to international competition: New Jersey families can't subscribe to Korean broadband. Meanwhile, creative destruction has been oversold: Microsoft may be ... in decline, but it's still enormously profitable thanks to the monopoly position it established decades ago.
Moreover, there's good reason to believe that monopoly is itself a barrier to innovation...: why upgrade your network or provide better services when your customers have nowhere to go?
And the same phenomenon may be ... holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle ... has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high..., yet corporations aren't reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they're buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you'd expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.
It's time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

Links for 02-17-2014

Posted: 17 Feb 2014 12:03 AM PST

'It's Not Just Talent and Hard Work'

Posted: 16 Feb 2014 09:46 AM PST

Two responses to Greg Mankiw's assertion that the income of the wealthy is deserved:

Paul Krugman:

Iron Men of Wall Street: Greg Mankiw has written another defense of the 0.1 percent — and this one is kind of amazing. ... Mankiw invokes the strong role of financial fortunes in U.S. inequality to argue that the incomes are deserved...
Has Greg been living in a cave since 2006? We're now in the seventh year of a slump brought on by Wall Street excess; the wizardly job of "allocating the economy's investment resources" consisted, we now know, largely of funneling money into a real estate bubble, using fancy financial engineering to create the illusion of sound, safe investment. We also know that there is a real question whether hedge funds, in particular, actually destroy value for their investors.
One more thing: Mankiw argues that our tax system is fair because the top 0.1 percent pays a higher share of income in federal taxes than the middle class. This neglects the partial offset of this progressivity by regressive state and local taxes. But surely the main point is that to the extent that taxes on the 0.1 percent are high (they aren't really, in historical context) that's largely because Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election... It's kind of funny to claim that our system is fair thanks to policies that you and your friends tried desperately to kill. ...

Dean Baker:

Inequality By Design: It's Not Just Talent and Hard Work: Greg Mankiw is out there defending the 1 percent again. He put forward the argument that the big bucks are simply their just desserts; the rewards for exceptional skill and hard work.
His opening act is Robert Downey Jr. who apparently got $50 million for his starring role in a single movie. This is a great place to start. There's no doubt that Robert Downey is an extremely talented actor, but of course there have been many actors over the years who have put in great performances for much less money. How is that Downey could earn so much more than a great actor from the 50s, 60s, or 70s? ...
In fact, a big part of the reason that Downey can collect huge paychecks is the extension and strengthening of copyrights. The United States has lengthened the period of copyrights from 28 years, with an option for a 28 year renewal, to 75 years in the 1976, and then to 95 years in 1998. 
It also has stepped up copyright enforcement, imposing stiff fines on people who use the Internet to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. ... It is only because of government intervention in the form of copyright monopolies that he is able to collect $50 million. ...
So is Downey worth his $50 million, perhaps given the structure we have, but we could easily have a different structure which could quite possibly be a more efficient way to support and distribute creative work. (Here's my scheme.) ...
Then we get to the CEOs who Mankiw tells us get high pay because of what they contribute to their companies and the economy. If this is the case, how do we explain CEO's of companies like Lehman, Bear Stearns, and AIG walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars even though they drove their firms into bankruptcy? ... How do we explain the fact that CEOs of incredibly successful companies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea make on average around a tenth as much as our crew does?
That one doesn't seem to fit the just desserts story. The more likely explanation is the Pay Pals story, where the company's board of directors are paid off by CEOs to look the other way as they pilfer the company. ...
And then there is the financial sector where Mankiw tells us that the extraordinary pay is compensation for the volatility of paychecks. That's interesting, except the vast majority of comparably talented and hardworking people would be happy to get the pay the finance folks get in the bad years. Much of the big money on Wall Street stems from highly leveraged bets that beat the market by seconds or even milliseconds. This provides as much value to the economy as insider trading...
It would be interesting to see what would happen to the big fortunes in the financial sector if it had to pay a small transaction fee, effectively subjecting it to the same sort of sales tax that is paid in almost every other sector of the economy. It would also be interesting to see what would happen to the private equity folks if they lost the opportunity for the tax gaming that is their bread and butter....
If the 1 percent are able to extract vast sums from the economy it is because we have structured the economy for this purpose. It could easily be structured differently, but the 1 percent and its defenders aren't interested in changing things. And the 1 percent and its defenders have a great deal of influence on the direction of economic policy.

The Permanent Scars of Economic Pessimism'

Posted: 16 Feb 2014 09:31 AM PST

As a follow-up to the post below this one, Antonio Fatas:

The permanent scars of economic pessimism: Gavyn Davies at the Financial Times reflects on the growing pessimism of Central Banks regarding the growth potential of advanced economies. In the US, the Euro area or the UK, central banks are reducing their estimates of the output gap. They now think about some of the recent output losses as permanent as opposed to cyclical.
It output is not far from what we consider to be potential, there is less need for central banks to act and it is more likely that we will see an earlier normalization of monetary policy towards a neutral stance...
But it is important to understand that the permanent effects are the consequence of the recession itself. If we could manage to reduce the length and depth of the recessions we would be minimizing those permanent effects. And in that sense, accepting these changes as structural and unavoidable is too pessimistic, leads to inaction and just makes matters worse. If you read the evidence properly, you want to do the opposite, you want to be even more aggressive to avoid what it looks at a much bigger cost of recessions.

'A Second Look at the Employment-to-Population Ratio'

Posted: 16 Feb 2014 09:20 AM PST

Some of the Federal Reserve regional banks appear to be moving toward the conclusion that we are closer to full employment than we thought (and hence the need for stimulus, while not yet eliminated, is diminished).

My view is that the Fed has been overly optimistic throughout this long ordeal called the Great Recession, and, therefore, given that inflation is not a problem, if the Fed is going to make a mistake, it ought to be on the side of doing too much for too long rather than ending stimulus too soon:

A Second Look at the Employment-to-Population Ratio, by Pat Higgins, Macroblog, FRB Atlanta: This analysis is a companion piece to my Atlanta Fed colleague John Robertson's recent macroblog post. John's blog highlighted some findings of a recent New York Fed study by Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy on the employment-to-population (E/P) ratio. Their work has received considerable attention in the media and blogosphere (for example, here, here, and here). Kapon and Tracy's final chart (reproduced below) has received particular scrutiny.
The blue line represents the authors' estimate of the demographically adjusted E/P ratio purged of business-cycle effects. This line can be thought of as "trend." The chart shows that as of November 2013, the E/P ratio was only –0.7 percentage point below trend. Was the "gap" between actual and trend E/P really this small?
Attempting to answer this question requires digging into the details of Kapon and Tracy's method for estimating trend. One key excerpt is the following:
To overlay our demographically adjusted E/P ratio with the actual E/P ratio, we need to adopt a normalization… [W]e adopt the normalization that over the thirty-one years in our data sample [1982–2013] any business-cycle deviations between the actual and the adjusted E/P ratios will average to zero.
This methodology seems reasonable since one might typically expect business cycle effects to average out over 30 years. However, the 1982–2013 sample period is somewhat unusual in that the unemployment rate was elevated at both the starting and ending points.
The chart below shows estimates of three labor market gaps derived from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimates—released on February 4, 2014—of the potential labor force and the long-term natural rate of unemployment. (This rate is often referred to as the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, and refers to the level of unemployment below which inflation rises.)
On average, the trend E/P ratio is below the actual rate by 0.86 percentage point. If one were to normalize the Kapon and Tracy E/P trend so that its average value was equal to CBO's trend, then the November 2013 E/P gap is about 1.5 percentage points. Whether or not the CBO estimate is the right benchmark is a matter of taste. CBO's recent estimate of NAIRU in the fourth quarter of 2013—5.5 percent—is lower than the 6 percent median estimate from the Survey of Professional Forecasters in the third quarter of 2013.
A second, more subtle issue in the Kapon and Tracy analysis is their treatment of cohorts:
We divide these individuals into 280 different cohorts defined by each individual's decade of birth, sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment. We assume that individuals within a specific cohort have similar career employment rate profiles. We use the 10.2 million observations [of CPS microdata] to estimate these 280 career employment rate profiles.
A well-known 2006 Brookings paper by Stephanie Aaronson and other Fed economists modeled trend labor force participation rate(LFPR) using birth-year cohorts. With estimates of trend LFPR and NAIRU, we can back out a trend E/P ratio. The chart below, adapted from Aaronson et al., plots age-group LFPRs against birth year.
We see that successive birth-year cohorts born between 1925 and 1950 had steadily increasing labor force attachment. Attachment for more recently born cohorts has leveled off and even declined slightly. People born in the 1990s have very low labor force attachment by historical standards. The inclusion of the "1990s—decade of birth" dummy variable in the Kapon and Tracy research probably implies that their model is interpreting much of this decline as structural. However, an alternative interpretation is that the decline is cyclical, because persons born after 1990 have been in an environment of high unemployment for most of their short working lives.
To gauge the sensitivity of trend or structural LFPR to how the youngest cohorts are treated, I used a stripped-down version of a model similar to Aaronson et al. Monthly LFPRs are modeled as a function of age, sex, birth date, and the CBO's estimate of the output gap during the January 1981 to January 2014 period. Time series published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 30 different age-sex cells are used so that the regression has 11,550 observations. Structural LFPR is constructed with the fitted values of the regression with a value of 0 percent for the output gap at all points in time. The trend E/P ratio is then backed out with the CBO's estimate of NAIRU.
The model is run with two different assumptions: First, following the approach of Aaronson et al., people born after 1986 have the same birth-year cohort effects as those born in December 1986. Second, no constraints are placed on birth-year cohort effects. Trend values of LFPR and E/P (taking on board the CBO's NAIRU) are plotted in the two charts below:

 

The January 2014 E/P gap with unconstrained cohort effects, as in Kapon and Tracy, is –1.0 percent, well below the –1.7 percent gap in the model with constrained cohort effects. Ultimately, both models are still very consistent with Kapon and Tracy's bottom line:
It is important to control for changing demographic factors when looking at the behavior of the E/P ratio over time. This step is particularly important today when these demographic factors are exerting downward pressure on the actual E/P rate, suggesting that the recent lack of improvement in the E/P ratio does not imply a lack of progress in the labor market. The adjusted E/P rate corroborates the basic picture from the unemployment rate that the labor market has been recovering over the past few years, but that it still has a ways to go to reach a full recovery.

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