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April 4, 2014

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Paul Krugman: Rube Goldberg Survives

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 12:24 AM PDT

Supporters of health reform should "go ahead and celebrate":

Rube Goldberg Survives, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Holy seven million, Batman! ...Obamacare has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start..., the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.
But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law's opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law's supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.
Of course, you don't find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory... But their reaction to the results — It's a fraud! They're cooking the books! — tells the tale. ...
So why are many reform supporters ... telling us not to read too much into the figures? ... I'd argue that they're missing the forest for the trees.
The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it's a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. ... Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn't have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program..., extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.
But it wasn't politically possible,... health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system... And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex. ... It's a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform... And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.
But the nightmare is over. ... Now we know that the technical details can be managed... This thing is going to work.
And, yes, it's also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. ...

So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.

Clearly, there's a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.

Links for 4-04-14

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 12:03 AM PDT

Fed Watch: Employment Report Ahead

Posted: 03 Apr 2014 05:23 PM PDT

Tim Duy:

Employment Report Ahead, by Tim Duy: Sorry for the light blogging this week - just getting back into the swings of things during the first week of spring term. But nothing like an employment report to pull me out of hibernation.
It is no secret that the employment report has a significant impact on monetary policy. And we need to make increasingly deeper dives at the data to discern the implications for policy. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen made that clear in her speech this week when she outlined a number of indicators - part-time but want full-time, wages,long-term unemployment, and labor force participation - as evidence of slack in the labor market. Such slack is sufficient, in her view, to justify maintaining accommodative policy for a considerable period (although note that accommodative does not mean zero rates).
Yellen, I think, outlined the most dovish case possible given the current information set. This suggests to me that the risk lies in the hawkish direction. Moreover, I think that Yellen and the remaining doves are losing the internal policy battle, leaving policy with a generally overall hawkish tone. Gone is the Evans rule and explicit allowance for above target inflation, gone, it seems, is a low bar for slowing the taper, gone is quantitative guidance in favor of qualitative guidance, gone is rules-based policy in favor of ad-hockery. And now departing Governor Jeremy Stein leaves behind an intellectual legacy that raises the importance of financial stability concerns when setting policy. Altogether, the stage is set for the Fed to move in a sharply more hawkish direction with just a little push from the data.
That said, that little push from the data is important. While I believe that the Fed has a hawkish bias, that bias will not be realized in the absence of data that is reasonably stronger than the Fed's forecasts. Which brings us to the next employment report. In general, the consensus view that the labor market shook off the winter doldrums with a 206k gain in nonfarm payrolls and 6.6% unemployment rate is probably pretty close to the Fed's expectations. The forecast range for payrolls, however, is skewed to the upside, with a range from 175k to 275k. The possibility of upside surprise follows from an expectation of a sharper bounce from earlier weather-related softness. This was evident in the employment component of the ISM Services report:

ISM0400314

In addition, weekly initial claims have improved in recent weeks, lending additional credence to expectations for a better-than-expected report:

INITCLAIMS0400314

Finally, the ADP number for private employment growth came in at a solid 191k for the month (noting of course, the less than perfect signal ADP provides). My quick and dirty approach - which admittedly was not particularly effective in recent months - points at a nfp gain of 199k in March, in line with consensus expectations:

NFPFOR0400314

As always, usual caveats apply. Guessing the preliminary numbers of a heavily revised data series is by itself something of a questionable game, a game we all play nonetheless.
As I noted earlier, however, headline numbers won't tell the whole story. The Fed will be looking deeper into the numbers for evidence of greater slack than indicated by the unemployment rate. My opinion is that if the slack is diminishing faster than the Fed doves expect, it is most likely we will see wage growth accelerate. If wage growth remains low, then the Fed will be confident that there is little incipient inflation pressure to justify a more aggressive reduction of policy accommodation.
Bottom Line: The baseline case remains zero rates until the middle to end of 2015, followed by a gentle pace of rate hikes. That said, it is all data dependent, and the baseline case appears to be contingent on a particularly dovish forecast. It seems to me that the risk thus lies in a less than dovish reality. SIgns that wages are increasing more rapidly would suggest just that. Still stagnant wage growth, however, gives the Fed more room to stick with the current policy path.

'Jeremy Stein to Resign From Fed Board'

Posted: 03 Apr 2014 01:07 PM PDT

When the Federal reserve Board is fully staffed, the Board members outnumber the regional bank presidents 7-5 on the FOMC (the committee that sets monetary policy). Presently, however, the power balance has shifted and it may shift even more:

Jeremy Stein to Resign From Fed Board, by Binyamin Appelbaum, NY Times: Jeremy Stein, a member of the Federal Reserve's board..., will resign at the end of May and return to his previous role at Harvard. Mr. Stein, who joined the Fed in 2012, needed to return within two years to preserve his tenured professorship. ...
Mr. Stein, an economist and noted academic, has helped to provide an intellectual rationale for the cautious evolution of the Fed's stimulus campaign, which has not succeeded in returning either unemployment or inflation to normal levels.
He has argued that the Fed should temper its efforts to minimize unemployment because those policies encourage financial risk-taking, which can undermine long-term growth by destabilizing markets and causing new crises. ...
His views remain controversial. ... Mr. Stein's tenure will be among the shortest in recent Fed history...
His departure could create a fourth vacancy on the seven-member board. Two nominees, Stanley Fischer and Lael Brainard, are awaiting Senate confirmation. Mr. Obama has not announced a nominee for a third vacancy, created last month when Sarah Bloom Raskin became deputy Treasury secretary.

I think the Fed should have been more aggressive, especially early on, but it was probably good to have someone asking questions about QE and risk-taking.

The Downward Drift in Real Interest Rates

Posted: 03 Apr 2014 09:53 AM PDT

David Wessel reports on the IMF's World Economic Outlook:

The Downward Drift in Inflation-Adjusted Interest Rates: Why? And So What?, by David Wessel, WSJ:

Real-rates

...Two economists writing in the International Monetary Fund's new World Economic Outlook note that inflation-adjusted interest rates have been coming down for more than three decades and suggests they may remain lower than normal for a very long time. ... But the important point is the trend towards lower interest rates began long before the Great Recession and advent of the Fed's quantitative easing...
Why does this matter? ... It also would pose a big challenge for the Fed. For one thing, it boosts the risk that investors will do foolish things to get a little extra yield and provoke the much-dreaded "financial instability."
It also increases the likelihood the economy will spend a whole lot more time with nominal rates ... uncomfortably close to zero, where it's much harder for a central bank to use interest rates to steer the economy out of recessions.  ...
If so, that argues ... for worrying a lot less about government budget deficits and a lot more about using government spending to give the economy a lift that monetary policy cannot provide. ...

And at the same time, "Governments Scale Back Spending on School Construction, Public Safety."

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