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March 3, 2015

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Latest Posts from Economist's View


Fed Watch: Does The Fed Have a Currency Problem?

Posted: 03 Mar 2015 12:15 AM PST

Tim Duy:

Does The Fed Have a Currency Problem?, by Tim Duy: The PCE inflation data was released today, and I have been seeing commentary on the relative strength of the core-inflation numbers. This, for example, from the Wall Street Journal:
A key gauge of U.S. consumer prices sank in January due partly to cheaper oil, undershooting the Federal Reserve's goal of 2% annual inflation for the 33rd consecutive month. But a gauge of underlying price pressures remained resilient headed into 2015.
The picture:

PCEa030215

Core-PCE is hovering around 1.3%, and the stability relative to last month is supposedly supportive of Federal Reserve plans to hike interest rates later this year.  
I would caution against that interpretation just yet. While it is true that the year-over-year change is how the Fed measures its progress toward price stability, you should also be watching the near term changes to see the likely direction of the year-over-year message. And in recent months, near-term core inflation has been falling at a rapid pace:

PCEb030215

On a 3-month basis, core inflation is at its lowest since the plunge in 2008. Year-over-year inflation has been held up by a basis effect from a jump in early 2014, but unless we get another jump in the monthly data, you can guess where the year-over-year number will be heading in the next few months:

PCEc030215

Which means that unless the numbers turn soon, there is a fairly good chance the Fed's preferred inflation guide (I say guide because headline inflation is truly the target) drifts lower as the year progresses. Hence I am less eager to embrace that today's release is supportive of the Fed's plans.  
Why is core-inflation drifting lower?  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen offered this in her testimony last week:
But core PCE inflation has also slowed since last summer, in part reflecting declines in the prices of many imported items and perhaps also some pass-through of lower energy costs into core consumer prices.
 While oil prices have stabilized, the dollar continues to gain ground, hitting an 11-year high today:

DOLLAR030215

If the dollar continues its upward gains - as might be expected given divergent monetary policy across the globe - further downward pressure on core-inflation is likely. This clearly throws a wrench into the Fed's plans. It would be hard to justify confidence in the inflation outlook if core-inflation trends lower in the months ahead.
The Fed could be headed for a very uncomfortable place. The dollar is rising, tightening financial conditions and placing downward pressure on inflation. At the same time, interest rates remain low while equities push higher, loosening financial conditions, arguably an equilibrating response to the rising dollar.  On net, then, the US economy keeps grinding upward, the labor market keeps improving, and the unemployment rate sinks lower. Yellen & Co. would want to resist tightening in the face of low inflation, but they would be increasingly tempted to react to low unemployment. Moreover, concerns of financial instability would mount if longer-term rates remained low and equities pushed higher. All in all, sounds like an increasingly hawkish FOMC coupled with a sluggish global economy and dovish central bankers elsewhere is raising the odds of a US policy error. 
Bottom Line: The rising dollar may be causing the Fed more headaches than they like to admit. To the extent that it is pushing inflation lower, the dollar should be delaying the time to the first rate hike as well as lowering the subsequent path of rates. The Fed may have to respond to the so-called "currency wars" whether they like it or not. That said, I can't rule out that they ignore the inflation numbers given the tightening labor market and what they perceive to be loose financial conditions. The Fed could fail to see the precarious nature of the current environment and move forward with plans to normalize policy. Increasingly likely to be a very interesting summer for monetary policy.

Links for 03-03-15

Posted: 03 Mar 2015 12:06 AM PST

'Is Income Inequality Harmful?'

Posted: 02 Mar 2015 10:51 AM PST

Lane Kenworthy:

Is income inequality harmful?, The Good Society, March 2015: A generation ago, perhaps even just a few years ago, worry about high or rising income inequality stemmed mainly from a belief that it is unfair. In recent years the source of apprehension has shifted. The dominant concern now is that inequality may have harmful effects on a range of outcomes we value, from education to health to economic growth to happiness to democracy and more. Does it?

My answer is organized as follows:

How should we assess income inequality's effects?

  • Education
  • Health
  • Family
  • Safety
  • Residential mixing
  • Trust
  • Economic growth
  • Employment
  • Economic stability
  • Household income growth: the poor
  • Household income growth: the middle class
  • Household balance sheets
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Happiness
  • Democracy
  • Is income inequality harmful?
  • What should we do?

One hypothesis of interest for some of these outcomes is that a higher level of income inequality increases inequality in the outcome. For instance, we might expect greater income inequality to contribute to greater inequality between the rich and the poor in life expectancy or happiness.

A second hypothesis is that a higher level of income inequality worsens the aggregate level of an outcome. For example, greater income inequality might reduce the average life expectancy or average happiness in a country.

Third, for some outcomes the hypothesis is that a higher level of income inequality worsens change in the aggregate level of an outcome. Greater income inequality might, for instance, reduce a country's economic growth (change in per capita GDP) or median household income growth.

How Should We Assess Income Inequality's Effects?

The most informative test, which I'll use here, is to see whether changes in income inequality in the world's rich countries correlate with changes in the various outcomes. It's important to understand why this analytical approach is useful, so bear with me for a moment while I elaborate. ...

After many, many paragraphs of analysis of the points listed above (including figures illustrating important points), he concludes:

Should we worry about high and rising income inequality in the United States? My answer is yes, for three reasons.
First, we have good evidence that income inequality tends to reduce middle-class income growth, increase disparities in education, health, family structure, and happiness, and heighten residential segregation. Not everyone will find these consequences objectionable, but I do.
Second, although we don't have strong evidence that the rise in income inequality over the past generation has increased inequality of political influence, there's good reason to fear that it has. That would be an intrinsically bad thing; it's antithetical to what most of us understand to be the core of democracy — government by and for all of the people, not just some of the people. In addition, if rising income inequality does increase the political influence of the rich, that could potentially have harmful spillover effects on a variety of outcomes in the future.
Third, the level of income inequality that currently obtains in the United States is unfair. Given that luck plays a huge role in determining the income people end up with, much of the disparity in incomes is, arguably, undeserved. Most of us accept some amount of income inequality as consistent with a reasonable degree of freedom and needed to sustain a dynamic, healthy economy. But the degree of inequality in the contemporary US surely is past that point.
That said, reducing income inequality isn't likely to be easy or quick. And income inequality's apparently small or nonexistent impact on many of the outcomes examined here suggests that it shouldn't necessarily be at the forefront of policy goals. For many of these outcomes, from education to health to economic growth and more, a direct approach, rather than an indirect one that works via reduced income inequality, is likely to be the most successful path.

Paul Krugman: Walmart’s Visible Hand

Posted: 02 Mar 2015 09:15 AM PST

How the pie is sliced depends upon more than economic forces:

Walmart's Visible Hand, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: A few days ago Walmart, America's largest employer, announced that it will raise wages for half a million workers. For many of those workers the gains will be small, but the announcement is nonetheless a very big deal, for two reasons. First, there will be spillovers: Walmart is so big that its action will probably lead to raises for millions of workers employed by other companies. Second, and arguably far more important, is what Walmart's move tells us — namely, that low wages are a political choice, and we can and should choose differently.
Some background: Conservatives — with the backing, I have to admit, of many economists — normally argue that the market for labor is like the market for anything else. The law of supply and demand, they say, determines the level of wages, and the invisible hand of the market will punish anyone who tries to defy this law.
Specifically,... a minimum wage, it's claimed, will reduce employment and create a labor surplus... Pressuring employers to pay more, or encouraging workers to organize into unions, will have the same effect.
But labor economists have long questioned this view..., workers are people, wages are not, in fact, like the price of butter, and how much workers are paid depends as much on social forces and political power as it does on simple supply and demand. ...
Walmart is ready to raise wages.... And its justification for the move echoes what critics of its low-wage policy have been saying for years: Paying workers better will lead to reduced turnover, better morale and higher productivity.
What this means, in turn, is that engineering a significant pay raise for tens of millions of Americans would almost surely be much easier than conventional wisdom suggests. Raise minimum wages by a substantial amount; make it easier for workers to organize, increasing their bargaining power; direct monetary and fiscal policy toward full employment, as opposed to keeping the economy depressed out of fear that we'll suddenly turn into Weimar Germany. It's not a hard list to implement — and if we did these things we could make major strides back toward the kind of society most of us want to live in.
The point is that extreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America's workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.

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