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August 4, 2015

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Fed Watch: Gearing Up For Employment Day

Posted: 04 Aug 2015 12:15 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

Gearing Up For Employment Day, by Tim Duy: The big event this week is the employment report. Fed watchers will eagerly dive into the data, looking for signs that the labor market made "some" further improvement. "Some" improvement appears to be an important hurdle to clear before the Fed will raise interest rates. How much "some" is necessary? I suspect it's like pornography - you will know it when you see it.
Incoming data continues a pattern general mediocrity. Today we received the June income and spending report, which one could have largely backed out of the second quarter GDP numbers. Real incomes edged up 0.2% while real spending was flat. Spending softened compared to last year, not unlike the pattern of 2004:


Recall that it was in July of 2004 that the Fed initiated the previous tightening cycle. Note also that one aspect of consumer spending, auto sales, showed no signs of softening in July.
Inflation remains below target, but arguably not far below target: 


While on a year-over-year basis, core-PCE remains well below target, recent reading are more solid. On an annualized basis, core-PCE rose 1.79% in June, within the range that I suspect most policymakers believe is consistent with their mandate (you can't hit exactly 2% all the time). The Fed will see these numbers as supporting their view that the 2014 inflation drop was driven by largely temporary factors.  
Manufacturing numbers remain on the soft side:


Stronger dollar, lower commodity prices, and softer global demand took the wind out of that sector, to be sure. Note that a sharp decline in ISM numbers from mid-2004 through mid-2005 did not deter the Fed from continuing its rate hike campaign.
Coming on the heels of last week's disastrous employment cost report, Friday's measure of wages will be closely watched. The tentative signs of wage growth acceleration we had been seeing in the ECI were quickly wiped out in the second quarter:


How will the Fed view this data? Tough call at this point. Digging into the data may lead them to conclude that this report was more smoke than fire.  Millan Mulraine via across the curve:

...I wanted to make a few observations on the ECI report following our conversation with the BLS. The key findings reinforce our earlier view that this anomalous performance in both wages and benefits has been driven by one-off factors that should unwind. As such, we believe that this report does not reflect a germane deterioration in underlying inflation dynamics, and will have little bearing on the Fed's deliberation on policy.

1. The sharp deceleration in the growth rate of the wages and salaries component (which accounts for about 70% of total compensation) was driven by a sharp falloff in incentive pay this quarter versus Q1. This accounted in the sharp drop in the growth rate of private industry wages (on an NSA basis) from 0.8% q/q in Q1 to 0.2% q/q in Q2. Excluding commission sale incentives, wages and salaries were unchanged at a solid 0.6% q/q pace in both quarters.

2. Benefits were also affected by special factors, and the key driver was the redefinition to retirement benefits in Q2, perhaps caused by the underfunding of some retirement pension plans. The 0.8% q/q drop in unionized workers benefits was a big part of this. Here is a link of various stories highlighting this fact earlier this year...

 The Fed may also find solace in the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker:


Of course, maybe they don't need faster wage growth at all, as Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal reminds us:

Given her [Fed Chair Janet Yellen] stance, Friday's employment cost report doesn't look like a deal breaker for the Fed in its long-running debate about when to raise short-term interest rates. Wages appear to be stagnant but not clearly weakening, which is what she set out as her threshold for not acting. Still, it creates new doubts for officials and doesn't help them build the confidence they're hoping to build that the job market is nearing full employment and inflation rising toward 2%.

At least one Fed official is on record saying he couldn't care less about the ECI report. That is St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, via the Wall Street Journal:

"We are in good shape" for increasing the Fed's currently near-zero short-term rate target at the Sept. 16-17 central bank gathering, Mr. Bullard said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He said officials needed to see how growth data released Thursday shaped up before clearing the way to act. 
Mr. Bullard shrugged off a report Friday showing surprising tepid wage gains, saying he isn't that worried about that situation right now.

That said, I think that most Fed officials would be more comfortable ignoring the ECI report if they see some hard evidence in the next two labor reports that wage growth really is strengthening.

Bottom Line: My general sense is that the data is falling in line in such a way that the Fed can justify a rate hike in September. Not sure I would describe the situation as being in "good shape" as Bullard does, but I see where they can find room in the data, especially if their logic is to go early so they can go slower. A 200k+ nonfarm payroll gain, a tick down in unemployment, and some wage growth would support that case. September is a hard call, however, because I doubt that the next six weeks of data will give them a clear, consistent story free of any warts or boils. If they ultimately need perfect data to move forward, then they will again take a pass on September. Perfect data will simply be hard to come by, I suspect, in a world where 2% growth is the new 4%.

Links for 08-04-15

Posted: 04 Aug 2015 12:06 AM PDT

'Are All Tax Increases a Bad Thing?'

Posted: 03 Aug 2015 10:33 AM PDT

I have time for one more... This is John Whitehead at Environmental Economics:

Are all tax increases a bad thing?: Not necessarily. And yet, Greg Mankiw:

As long-time readers of this blog know, I have long advocated greater use of Pigovian taxes, such as taxes on carbon emissions. Such taxes can correct incentives by aligning private and social costs, and the revenue from such taxes can be used to reduce other, distortionary taxes.

Skeptics of Pigovian taxes on the right sometimes argue that such taxes are good in principle but in practice the left will co-opt them and, rather than using the revenue to reduce other taxes, will use it to fund ever larger government.

Sadly, that point of view is getting some support in Washington state.  The headline above from The Seattle Times reads 'Green' alliance opposes petition to tax carbon.  Why the opposition?  Because the ballot measure is revenue-neutral. Some environmentalists want to use the revenue from the proposed carbon tax to increase spending instead.

I believe that a carbon tax could someday win bipartisan support.  But before it does so, those on the left will need to convince those on the right that the tax would be a tax shift, not a tax increase.  The carbon tax needs to be evaluated on its own merits and should not be a stalking horse for a broader, big-government agenda.

The standard textbook treatment of a Pigouvian tax is agnostic on what happens to the revenue. It could be used efficiently to finance other projects..., reduce distortionary taxes or reduce government debt...

Mankiw's last paragraph strays far from the economics and is one-sided in its condemnation of those on the political left. A bipartison paragraph would read more like this:

I believe that a carbon tax could someday win bipartisan support.  But before it does so, those on the left will need to convince those on the right that the tax would be a tax shift, not a tax increase.  And those on the right will need to convince those on the left that the tax is not trojan horse for a tax cut for the rich. The carbon tax needs to be evaluated on its own merits. and should not be a stalking horse for a broader, big-government agenda.

The carbon tax needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Period. ...

I know of no empirical evidence to suggest that there is only one efficient use for Pigouvian tax revenue. 

'Is Deficit Fetishism Innate or Contextual?'

Posted: 03 Aug 2015 10:25 AM PDT

A quick one before hitting the road. Is deficit fetishism bullshit? This is from Simon Wren-Lewis:

Is deficit fetishism innate or contextual?: In a couple of interesting posts, Jonathan Hopkin and Ben Rosamond, political scientists from the LSE and Copenhagen respectively, talk about 'political bullshit'. They use 'bullshit' as a technical term due to Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Unlike lying, bullshit tells false stories that pay no heed to the truth. Their appeal is more to common sense, or what Tyler Cowen calls common sense morality. At a primitive level it is the stuff of political sound bites, but at a slightly more detailed level it is the language of what Krugman ironically calls 'Very Serious People'.
The implication which can then be drawn is that because bullshit does not reside in the "court of truth", trying to combat it with facts, knowledge or expertise may have limited effectiveness. The conditions under which this might be true, and the extent to which information technology impacts on this, are fascinating issues...
In the case of fiscal policy, deficit fetishism as bullshit involves appeals to 'common sense' by invoking simple analogies with households, often coupled with an element of morality - it is responsible to pay down debts. The point in calling it bullshit (in this technical sense) is that attempts to counter it by appeals to facts or knowledge (e.g. the government is not like a household, as every economist knows) may have limited effectiveness. Instead it might be better to fight bullshit with bullshit...
I want to ask whether deficit fetishism will always be powerful bullshit, or whether its force is a symptom of a particular time, and what is more a time that may by now have passed. ...
At first sight deficit fetishism seems to be innate...

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