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December 4, 2014

Latest Posts from Economist's View

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Fed Watch: Ahead of the November Employment Report

Posted: 04 Dec 2014 12:15 AM PST

Tim Duy:

Ahead of the November Employment Report, by Tim Duy: Data in the first week of December has told a generally bullish story for the US economy. The week began with an upbeat number from the ISM manufacturing index with solid underlying data:


While this was seemingly at odds with the Markit manufacturing index, I would say that both of these series (like consumer confidence) exhibit far too much variability to place too much weight on any one month of data. If I look at the ISM measure in context with other US manufacturing data, the overall view is one of steadily improving activity in the sector (note the estimated 17.1 million auto sales rate for November):


This also seems consistent with the anecdotal story told by the Beige Book:
Manufacturing activity generally advanced during the reporting period. The automotive and aerospace industries continued to be sources of strength. Steel production increased in Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco. Fabricated metal manufacturers in the Chicago and Dallas Districts noted widespread growth in orders. Dallas reported that domestic sales for plastics were strong, while demand for plastics was steady in Richmond and declined in Kansas City. Chemical manufacturers in the Boston District indicated that the falling price of oil relative to natural gas had made U.S. producers less competitive, because foreign chemical producers rely more heavily on oil for feedstock and production. St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Dallas reported that food production was little changed on balance, but production in Kansas City continued to decline. Chicago and Dallas indicated that shipments of construction materials increased. Manufacturers of heavy machinery in the Chicago District cited improvements in sales of construction machinery, but reported ongoing weak demand for agricultural and mining equipment. High-tech manufacturers in Boston, Dallas, and San Francisco noted steady growth in demand. Biotech revenue increased in the San Francisco District.
I would also add that the Beige Book had a decidedly optimistic tenor:
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest that national economic activity continued to expand in October and November. A number of Districts also noted that contacts remained optimistic about the outlook for future economic activity.
The ISM's service sector report was equally upbeat:


The ADP report fell somewhat short of expectations, but again this number is far too volatile to place much if any weight on a small miss. Or even a large miss, for that matter. Calculated Risk places the ADP number in context of other labor market indicators, concluding that:
There is always some randomness to the employment report. The consensus forecast is pretty strong, but I'll take the over again (above 230,000).
I don't have much to add here. As I have said before, predicting the monthly nonfarm payroll change is a fool's errand, yet an errand we all undertake. I would pick 235k with an upside risk. More important is what happens to wage growth. I expect that to pick up over the next six months, but would be surprised to see any large gain this month.
Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal reports that top Federal Reserve policymakers are not deterred in their plans for policy normalization:
In public appearances this week, Janet Yellen's two top lieutenants sounded like individuals who want to start raising short-term interest rates in the months ahead, despite mounting uncertainties about growth abroad and associated downward pressure on commodities prices...
..."It is clear we are getting closer" to dropping an assurance that rates will stay low for a considerable time, he said. Mr. Fischer repeatedly emphasized his desire to get back to normal. "We almost got used to thinking that zero is the natural place for the interest rate. It is far from it," he said.
In case there is any doubt about where top Fed officials are going with this, New York Fed president Bill Dudley said bluntly: "Market expectations that lift-off will occur around mid-2015 seem reasonable to me." Like Mr. Fischer, Mr. Dudley sees the recent decline in oil prices as a net positive for the U.S., a net importer of energy which benefits from a lower cost of imported oil.
I think the speech my New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley is a must read. I have been repeatedly drawn to this paragraph (emphasis added):
First, when lift-off occurs, the pace of monetary policy normalization will depend, in part, on how financial market conditions react to the initial and subsequent tightening moves. If the reaction is relatively large—think of the response of financial market conditions during the so-called "taper tantrum" during the spring and summer of 2013—then this would likely prompt a slower and more cautious approach. In contrast, if the reaction were relatively small or even in the wrong direction, with financial market conditions easing—think of the response of long-term bond yields and the equity market as the asset purchase program was gradually phased out over the past year—then this would imply a more aggressive approach. The key point is this: We will pursue the monetary policy stance that best generates the set of financial market conditions most consistent with achievement of the FOMC's dual mandate objectives. This depends both on how financial market conditions respond to the Fed's policy actions and on how the real economy responds to the changes in financial conditions.
Long term yields have been drifting down since the "taper tantrum," flattening the yield curve significantly:



Dudley seems to be saying that he does not think that financial conditions should be easing, especially since he thinks he has been clear that the time to begin policy normalization is fast approaching. Robin Harding at the Financial Times sees the implications:
Although Mr Dudley does not say it, this argument could apply to the timing of rate rises as well as their pace. Markets have not reacted much to the prospect of Fed rate rises: the ten-year yield at 2.22 per cent is no higher than it was before the taper tantrum in summer 2013; the S&P 500 is up by 15 per cent on a year ago. Mr Dudley explicitly cites the low level of 10-year Treasury yields, saying they are presumably due, "in part, to the fact that long-term interest rates in Europe and Japan are much lower".
If markets are not reacting to potential Fed rate rises then, by Mr Dudley's logic, rate rises could need to come earlier as well as faster. The initial rate rise, in particular, could help the Fed to learn about the financial market response. That may help to explain why Mr Dudley is still in June 2015 for rate lift-off despite his dovish views.
Take this all in context of an earlier passage from the Dudley speech:
...during the 2004-07 period, the FOMC tightened monetary policy nearly continuously, raising the federal funds rate from 1 percent to 5.25 percent in 17 steps. However, during this period, 10-year Treasury note yields did not rise much, credit spreads generally narrowed and U.S. equity price indices moved higher. Moreover, the availability of mortgage credit eased, rather than tightened. As a result, financial market conditions did not tighten.
As a result, financial conditions remained quite loose, despite the large increase in the federal funds rate. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that either monetary policy should have been tightened more aggressively or macroprudential measures should have been implemented in order to tighten credit conditions in the overheated housing sector...
Dudley appears to be increasingly concerned that the evolution of financial conditions this year suggests the Fed needs to pursue a more aggressive policy stance or else risk a repeat of 04-07. If this concern is being felt more generally within the Fed, it clearly puts a more hawkish bias to the Fed's reaction function. And, in my opinion, I think the risk of a more hawkish Federal Reserve is under-appreciated. Few are expecting a hawkish Federal Reserve, reasonably so given the path of policy since 2008. But I don't think the data are that far from a tipping point for the Federal Reserve. Of course, take that in the context of my general optimism.
A second point is that Dudley is not taking seriously the possibility that the flattening yields curve suggests the Fed has less room to move than policymakers think they do. This is something I worry about - if the Fed leans on the short end too much, they risk taking an expansion that should last another fours years to one that has just two more years left. But that might be a story for next December.
Bottom Line: Generally positive US data leave the Fed on track for a rate hike in the middle of next year. I am inclined to believe that the risk is that rate hikes come sooner and faster than anticipated outweigh the risk of later and slower.

Links for 12-04-14

Posted: 04 Dec 2014 12:04 AM PST

Social Insurance Guaranteed

Posted: 03 Dec 2014 02:03 PM PST

I was looking for an old post of mine on social insurance and entrepreneurship to complement this post today from Nick Bunker when I came across this from September of 2005 (slightly edited). Maybe I wasn't one of the people yelling loudly that the Great Recession was about to hit, but I did warn that "Things happen," so be ready when they do:

...The discussion concerning Social Security has, in my view, largely underplayed the role the government has to play in guaranteeing the social insurance aspect of the system, particularly from those in favor of private accounts. When all shocks that hit people are individual so that there are winners and losers, but overall the winners and losers balance, then it is possible for people to voluntarily enter into arrangements where the individual risks are shared and thus largely eliminated (abstracting for the moment from market failure problems in social insurance markets). Conversely, if people want to bear the risks individually, they can. This system works fine for time periods when shocks are small and idiosyncratic. But what about large disasters such as a hurricane that floods New Orleans, or a Great Depression that guts an entire economy?

The Social Security program grew out of a time when there was a large aggregate shock, a shock that resulted in the Great Depression. The Great Depression affected people collectively, it wasn't just a few unlucky individuals balanced somewhere else by winners. It's been hard for me to see how private accounts would help when stock market values fall, as they did after the crash of 1929, to one sixth their pre-crash values. Without some sort of social support from the government, such as it is, people would be much worse off after such events. How will personal accounts and individual accountability rebuild schools or bridges in New Orleans? How will private accounts or even the private sector rescue the elderly from rooftops or provide security against looters? They won't. For large collective shocks the government, not the private sector induced purely by profit, must stand ready to act as the "insurer of last resort."

To have a social security system that falls apart when you most need it, when there are large disasters affecting entire regions or economies, is not optimal. Personal accounts would not have withstood the stock market crash associated with the Great Depression. Why do we want to implement a social support system that fails when it is needed the most? I don't think any of us believes we should leave it to individuals to bear the full cost of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, i.e. that government should not be involved at all. We all know that government has a role to play in this disaster, the cry from all sides is that the government is doing too little, not that it is doing too much. Things may not be perfect with government involved, and there is certainly room for improvement, but things would be even worse if government did not get involved at all. And just as the government has an essential role to play in this disaster, it will also have an essential role to play when the next big shock, whether it's financial, natural, or human induced, hits us in the future. Social insurance systems aren't just for the next few years, they must survive as long as the country does. Social insurance must survive the big shocks, and for that to happen the government must, in the end, provide the insurance.

If you think such large shocks cannot happen again, that big shocks such as a Great Depression will never, ever happen again to anyone ever, think about the events in any one hundred year time period. Things happen.

'Entrepreneurship, Down-Side Risks, and Social Insurance'

Posted: 03 Dec 2014 11:43 AM PST

In 2009 I argued:

...A more extensive social safety net can reduce the risk of attempts at entrepreneurship. If there is an extensive social safety net to fall back upon if things don't work out, you might be more willing to quit the job you hate (the one with health insurance for the kids) and sink everything you have into a small business that you've always wanted to run. But I'm not sure the data above support this interpretation, i.e. that there is an obvious positive association between the strength of social insurance and the prevalence of small business. But it is highly suggestive, and regressions that control for other cross-country differences could help to settle the issue.

Nick Bunker discusses a paper that provides supporting evidence:

Entrepreneurship, down-side risks, and social insurance, Washington Center for Equitable Growth: When Americans talk about entrepreneurs, or at least the reasons for becoming one, the possibility of great success is most often the first topic of discussion. The great wealth that company founders such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg amassed certainly make the idea of starting a business more attractive to potential entrepreneurs. But according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, we should be paying more attend to the down-side risks when it comes to fostering entrepreneurship.
The new paper, by economists John Hombert and David Thesmar of HEC Paris, David Sraer of the University of California-Berkeley, and Antoinette Schoar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at a reform in the French unemployment insurance system enacted in 2002. The reform allowed unemployed workers who start a new business to keep the right to their unemployment benefits for up to three years. They could use the accrued benefits to make up the difference between their business's revenue and the level of benefits they would have otherwise received.
The four researchers find that the policy change acted as a sort of entrepreneurship insurance. Workers who before would have been hesitant to start a business may be more likely to do so now that they had some protection against downside risk. The new paper documents that the rate at which firms were created increased by 25 percent after the 2002 reform....
They also find that ... the evidence points toward these new entrepreneurs being capable businesspeople who just needed a safety net before starting a business. What's more, these new firms had a positive impact on the overall economy. ...
Many U.S. policymakers and economists are worried about the decline in entrepreneurship and business creation. They might want to consider investigating whether alleviating the down-side risks to starting a company can help solve that problem.

'Charles Evans: Low Inflation Is the Primary Concern'

Posted: 03 Dec 2014 10:24 AM PST

I hope the Fed listens to Charlie Evans (as opposed to Charles Plosser):

Q. and A. With Charles Evans of the Fed: Low Inflation Is the Primary Concern: Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, is nervous about inflation. His worry, however, is not the old Fed fear that prices are rising too quickly, but the new Fed fear that prices are not rising fast enough.
Mr. Evans said in an interview Tuesday that he now saw the sluggish pace of inflation as the primary reason the Fed should keep short-term interest rates near zero, a view shared by a growing number of Fed officials.
Mr. Evans, one of the 10 Fed officials who will vote on monetary policy decisions next year, has emerged since the financial crisis as one of the most forceful advocates for the Fed's stimulus campaign. He pressed successfully in 2012 for more forceful action to reduce unemployment. Now he is warning that the Fed must be careful to avoid raising rates prematurely. ...

'Return of Focus Hocus Pocus'

Posted: 03 Dec 2014 10:18 AM PST

Paul Krugman:

Return of Focus Hocus Pocus: I've been getting correspondence from people saying that I need to respond to Tom Edsall channeling Chuck Schumer on how health reform was a mistake, Obama should have focused on the economy.
The thing is, I responded to this argument four years ago, and everything I said then still applies. When people say that Obama should have "focused" on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done? Enacted a bigger stimulus? Maybe he could have done that at the very beginning, but that wouldn't have conflicted with the effort to pass health reform — and anyway, I don't hear many of the "focus" types saying that. So what do they mean? Obama should have gone around squinting and saying "I'm focused on the economy"? What would that have done?
Look, governing is not just theater. For sure the weakness of the recovery has hurt Democrats. But "focusing", whatever that means, wouldn't have delivered more job growth. What should Obama have done that he actually could have done in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition? And how, if at all, did health reform stand in the way of doing whatever it is you're saying he should have done?
I have seen no answer to these questions.

I am going to have to disagree slightly. Politics is, in large part, about identity and I don't think Obama did nearly enough to show he identifies with the working class. Fighting for their needs publicly and loudly probably wouldn't have made any difference in terms of fiscal policy, but doing more to signal that he identifies with their struggles might have helped at the ballot box. I don't see how it could have hurt. Yes, various jobs programs were proposed along the way, and nothing came of them for the most part, but there just wasn't enough fist-pounding on this issue by the administration.

Update: See also Robert Waldmann.

'What’s Causing the Increase in Long-Term Unemployment?'

Posted: 03 Dec 2014 10:08 AM PST

Salim Furth, who "is senior policy analyst in macroeconomics at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis":

What's Causing the Increase in Long-Term Unemployment?: Some economic indicators, including the short-term unemployment rate, have recovered to levels associated with "normal times." But long-term unemployment remains high...
Many economists, myself included, expected that the expiration of long-term unemployment benefits at the end of 2013 would sharply lower the long-term unemployment rate. Instead, the rate has continued its slow, steady decline. ...
Nor is it merely a holdover from the Great Recession: Few of the long-term unemployed report being out of work for more than two years. The majority are still in their first year of joblessness.
Economists have not yet found convincing explanations for the persistent rise in long-term unemployment. Most economists agree that multi-year unemployment spells have permanent negative effects on workers' productivity and pay, in addition to their happiness. The problem is worth studying.

They will have to find another social insurance program to blame...instead of, say, lack of demand (a policy failure) combined with the stigma attached to the long-term unemployed.

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