Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

What is the Economic Middle Class?

My lovely wife shared this link with me on Facebook.  I got into a discussion in comments there with a right winger who suggested that $250,000 was a very reasonable estimate for median income in Boston.

As it turns out, median household income in Boston is $51,914, close to the national average, and way below the Mass. State average of $67,950.  But right wingers live in a data-free world, so this is no surprise.

Another contention in comments at that site is that the middle class is undefined and undefinable. Not so.  I define middle class household income as the middle quintile.  This range includes the median and a band around it wide enough to hold 20 percent of the population.  You might wish to concoct your own definition with a wider spread, but you’d better not be asymmetric around the median.  Feel free to use the middle three quintiles, if that is your preference.  But if your of concept of middle class gets very far beyond 50% of the population, you really ought to give more thought to what the word “middle” actually means.

Thinking about all this prompted a look at the various income quintiles.  The data, through 2009, is available at the Census Bureau web site, table 694.  This table provides historical data from 1967 through 2009 on the top income limit for the bottom 4 quintiles, and the bottom income limit for the top 5%, expressed in constant 2009 dollars.

Graph 1 presents this data.  The 3rd quintile – my definition of the middle class – is between the orange line and the yellow line.

In 1967, the threshold for the middle quintile was $32, 848.  By 2009, it had increased by 17% to $38,550.  This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.38%

In 1967, the top limit for the middle (and threshold to the 4th) quintile was $46, 621.  By 2009, it had increased by 33% to $61,801. This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.68%.

The threshold value for the fifth quintile increased from $66,481 in 1967 by 80% to exactly $100,000 in 2009.  This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.98%.

To reach the top 5% required an income of 106,684 in 1967.  By 2009, this had increased by 69% to $180, 001.   This is a compounded annual growth rate of 1.25%.

So my comment sparring partner and the current presidential challenger he seems to support are a bit off base.  $250,000 in household income puts a family well above the 95th percentile.  In fact, that is just enough household income to crack the top 2%.

My ongoing hobby of debunking right wing nonsense aside, the point of this post is mainly to inform.
There are two main observations:
1) While the bottom two quintiles haven’t changed much over the decades, entry to the third quintile has crept up a bit; and into higher categories it’s moved up a lot.  We recognize this as stagnation in the bottom half and growing inequality in the top half, skewed powerfully to the top.
2) This data set stops in ’09, so Obama is outside the discussion.  But we can see that all the way up to the 95th percentile, income growth was dead flat during the Bush administration.  No wonder the 95% percentile feels so poor.

But — surely, some wealth was generated during those 8 years.  GDP growth was positive at least some of the time.  I wonder where it all went?

Cross posted at Retirement Blues.

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Public and Private Investment

One not particularly cute graph; no analysis, explanation, nor editorializing.

GDPI is gross domestic private investment.

NDGIC96 is Real Federal Nondefense Gross Investment.

SLINVC96 is Real State & Local Government Gross Investment.

Source page at FRED.

Note that private investment runs at about 7 times the total of government investment at all levels.

Make of it what you will.

H/T to PK.

Cross posted at Retirement Blues.

UPDATE: In comments, Art raises the valid but trivial point that this graph compares nominal GPDI to real govt investment.  Oversight on my part.

Here is is again, with GPDI adjusted by the implicit GDP Deflator, indexed to 100 in 2005.  This brings the GPDI line down a bit relative to government investment.

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Yes, The Right Wing Lies When They Say Obama is a Profligate Spender

Part III – How to think about time series data.

For reference:
Part II  Federal Spending as a Fraction of GDP

Part I  Federal Spending Growth

Some commentors to the previous posts have rightly concluded that I consider spending under Obama in the context of historical trends.  In fact, if you don’t consider historical trends, you are ignoring the most important element of context that is available.  I only mentioned trends briefly in Part II, but the directional changes in the graphs of Parts I and II implicitly suggest them.

Time series data that relate to the size of the population, the government, or the economy generally follow a quasi-exponential growth pattern.  I say quasi- because a perfect exponential growth pattern  results from a continuous constant rate of growth, while real world growth rates vary from year.  Graph 3 of Part II shows how these variations have occurred over several decades.  Usually this does not result in a large or permanent deformation in the shape of a quasi-exponential curve, since the growth rate typically oscillates irregularly around a mean value that only changes slowly over time.

Graph 2 in Part II shows that the spending and GDP growth curves stay close to exponential tracks over long time spans.  It also illustrates that the recent recession was one of those rare times when growth rates deviated substantially.

Human eye-brain coordination doesn’t deal well with exponential curve shapes.  Straight lines are much easier to comprehend and extrapolate.  Graphing quasi-exponential data on a log scale reduces the curve to a quasi-straight line that is much easier to use and understand.

Graph 1 shows Federal Spending and GDP, since 1995, plotted on a log scale.  Constant growth results in a straight line segment, and a higher growth rate causes a steeper slope.  Zero growth shows up as a horizontal line.   I’ve again included a line for 5 times spending, to get a close overlay with the GDP line.

 Graph 1.  Spending and GDP since 1995 (log scale)

There is an upward bend in the spending line in 2000.  This is most easily seen in the blue line.  During the 90’s, we can see that GDP grew faster than spending.  In 2001-2, GDP growth flat-lined, as expected during a recession. Then, from 20002 to 2008, the growth rates for GDP and spending were close to identical.  Both lines twist during the most recent recession.  Curiously, spending growth was flat for a large portion of 2008.

Since the recession, the spending lines are very close to flat, and GDP growth has been anemic.  Here is a close up.

Graph 2.  Spending and GDP since 2007 (log scale)

Graph 3 provides context, all the way back to 1947.  Ponder the inflection points and slope changes at your leisure.

Graph 2.  Spending and GDP since 1947 (log scale)

Note that there are only two flat-ish spots in the spending lines: now, and during the Eisenhower administration. The current administration has, at least temporarily, broken the decades-long trend in continuous spending increases. 

To emphasize the obvious, spending growth is now very close to zero.  In context, this is remarkable.  Saying Obama is a profligate spender is a lie. 

In this post, I am not suggesting that the rate of spending growth under any president is good, bad, appropriate or inappropriate.  I am only pointing out what was and is. 

So, this is how you think about time series data.
0) Forget your preconceived notions.    (Frex:I had no idea that spending growth has essentially stopped until I looked at the data.)
1) Identify trends. The history of time series data provides meaningful context.
2) Identify break points and trend changes.  These are key data points.
3) Note the directions of these changes.
4) Think hard about what these observations are actually telling you, not what you want them to say.
5) Double down on 4) if you are looking at a ratio.  Ponder that denominator.
6) Don’t cherry pick.  It’s dishonest.

There are a lot of ways to look at a data set: linear and log scales, rate of change, etc.  Chose the one that gives the clearest picture of the data you want to analyze, or simplifies the analysis, or makes it easier to understand.  Studying different views can be informative, as can a comparison of different data sets. 

Here is the working page at FRED for the graphs in this post.  I encourage the interested reader to spend some time working with the capabilities of this very powerful tool.

Editorial Comment:
In case it’s not obvious, I’ll tell you that I write these posts because they interest me and I think they generate some knowledge, or at least information, that is worth sharing.  I have virtually no interest in the fool’s errand of convincing anybody that I am right – either the data analysis convinces you or it doesn’t.  So unless you have better data, or can point out some specific flaw in my reasoning [and then tell me specifically and in detail how to get it right] don’t bother arguing with me.

I appreciate rational discourse, and am always willing to engage thoughtful readers. I’m also willing to be proven wrong by a cogent argument.  That said, though, I don’t really care if anyone comments.  At this point, I’d almost rather nobody did.  But if you chose to, please do me the courtesy of having your comment be somewhere in the general vicinity of on-topic.  And – fair warning: naked assertions and unsubstantiated ideologically approved talking points will be scoffed at, so please check that nonsense at the door.

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Why Spending/GDP is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Metric For Judging Obama’s Performance

A post like this really shouldn’t be necessary, but part of the right wing canard that Obama has been a profligate spender is based on spending as a percentage of GDP.

It looks like this – Graph 1.

Graph 1.  Fed Expenditures/GDP

Sure enough, by the end of Clinton’s term the ratio had fallen from Reagan’s high of 24% to a modern low of 19%.  But note that the 19% value wasn’t typical.  It was the end point of a decade-long decline.  And, yep, there’s Obama with an all-time-high approaching 26%.

What otherwise intelligent, and sometimes even famous people seem to ignore though, is that every ratio has not only a numerator but also that ol’ devil denominator.   Let’s have a look at both of them.  Graph 2 shows GDP and Expenditures since 1980, expressed in $ Billions.  I’ve also added a line representing 5* Expenditures, since 20% of GDP is a reasonable rough estimate for the post WW II era.

Graph 2.  Expenditures and GDP Compared

Actually, the 5x Expenditures line runs pretty consistently above the GDP line, telling us two things that we should have already known from looking at Graph 1.  First, Expenditures greater than 20% of GDP have been the norm since before 1980, and 2) Clinton’s final number is not representative of anything other than a single year.  Using it as a comparator is cherry-picking and fundamentally dishonest.

The 5x line also emphasizes that the majority of the spending increase under Obama unavoidably occurred during the officially designated recession.  The GDP line shows that, post recession, GDP growth has not recovered to the pre-recession trend line.  In fact, growth has established a new trend line with a lower slope.  This is unprecedented in the scope of FRED historical data.  My guess is that insufficient Federal spending has been a big drag on this recovery.  But it’s also true that GDP growth has been in secular decline since the Reagan administration.  Note that skewing the denominator down will automatically skew the ratio up.  This is what Bill Clinton calls “arithmetic.”

Slicing across this a different way, Graph 3 gives us year-over-year percentage growth in Expenditures and GDP, dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

Graph 3.  YoY % Change in Expenditures and GDP

A few simple observations:
– The spending increase during the recent recession was modest by any standard, and dwarfed by earlier surges.
– That increase, coupled with the most severe GDP decline since the other Great Depression gave our beloved ratio a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad double whammy.
– GDP growth during this recovery is only marginally better than it was during the 2001-2 low, and far below Clinton era levels.
– Clinton was the most consistently frugal president of the post WW II era – until now.
– Since the recession was declared over, B. Hoover Obama has been miserly.

One can legitimately argue that Obama’s approach to the economy has been excessively conservative.  Krugman has made this point repeatedly.  I often say that Clinton governed to the right of Eisenhower – who was a genuine deficit hawk – and that Obama is to the right of Clinton. That is intended to be slightly hyperbolic, but using this data as the benchmark, it’s dead on.

Any questions?

Cross posted at Retirement Blues

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A Quick Look at Federal Spending

Over at Plain Blog, an anonymous wing nut made this off-topic comment.

Now, yes, Bill Clinton and his 2000 federal spending level of 18% of GDP doesn’t put him on the fringe, which makes it surprising that you lefties are celebrating him, even as you hysterically condemn anybody who resists the Left’s current massive spending levels, which are nearly 50% greater than Clinton’s and are spending the nation into debt obvlivion.

This once again raises the regressive canard that Obama has been a profligate and fiscally irresponsible spender.

Let’s have a look.

Here is a graph of current expenditures that took place in the years of the current century.

First observation is that anon’s math isn’t very good.  Current expenditures are roughly 100% greater than when Clinton left office, not a mere 50%.

Second observation is that the vast majority of that increase – from about $1900 billion to about $3200 billion – took place under the previous administration.

Third observation is that the bulk of the Obama increase occurred during the recession – as it should – from a bit under $3200 billion to a bit under $3600 billion.  Since then it’s crept up to about $3800 billion, and has recently flat-lined.

A more subtle point is that spending, like many time series data sets, increases exponentially over time, following population growth.  So, saying that a value at time B is some percentage greater than the value at time A communicates essentially zero information.  Context matters.

Let’s look at expenditures in terms of year over year increase.

Yep, there was a big increase in 2009 and 2010, as social safety net programs kicked in.

Since then, expenditure growth fell precipitously and now has actually gone negative.  The last time that happened was in the Eisenhower administration.  Clearly, Obama has not been profligate.  Would it be an exaggeration to say he’s been miserly?

Bill Clinton did a great job of exposing Republican lies in his speech at the Democratic convention last night.  But really, it’s easy.  All you have to do to refute a regressive is have a quick look at facts and data.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Debt, Recession, and That Ol’ Devil Denominator

Krugman recently presented this graph, showing household debt as a percentage of GDP.

and made this comment.

Second, a dramatic rise in household debt, which many of us now believe lies at the heart of our continuing depression.

There are those who seem to believe that if Krugman says it, it must be wrong.   Here is Scott Sumner’s reaction.

What do you see?  I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, but I see three big debt surges:  1952-64, 1984-91, and 2000-08.  The first debt surge was followed by a golden age in American history; the boom of 1965-73.  The second debt surge was followed by another golden age, the boom of 1991-2007.  And the third was followed by a severe recession.  What was different with the third case?  The Fed adopted a tight money policy that caused NGDP growth to crash, which in turn sharply raised the W/NGDP ratio.  Krugman has another recent post that shows further evidence of the importance of sticky wages.  Forget about debt and focus on NGDP.  It’s NGDP instability that creates problems, not debt surges.

Bold emphasis is provided by Marcus Nunes, who goes on to say:

Why does the share of debt rise? I believe it reflects peoples “optimism” about future prospects. In the chart below I break down Krugman´s chart and separate mortgage and non-mortgage household debt as a share of NGDP. I also add the behavior of the stock market (here represented by the Dow-Jones Index).

[See the linked Nunes post for his chart.]

Eye of the beholder, indeed.  Nunes makes an expectations-based argument, and adds:

Non-mortgage debt remains relatively stable after 1965, fluctuating in the range of 17% to 22% of NGDP. No problem there.

But the reality is that non-mortgage debt has grown quasi-exponentially in the post WW II period.

Sumner, as always, beats the NGDP drum. 

My friend Art takes a jaundiced view of the Sumner-Nunes interpretation.  He gets it exactly right.  To see why, let’s go back and have a look at the data.  Here is straight CMDEBT (Household Credit Market Debt Outstanding,) presented as YoY percent change – not distorted by a GDP divisor.

Sumner sees a debt surge from 1952 to 1964.  I see a secular decrease in the YoY rate of debt growth from over 15% to under 5% by about 1966.

Sumner sees a debt surge from 1984 to 1991.  I see a decrease in the YoY rate of debt growth from over 15% to about 5% over that same span.

Sumner sees a debt surge from 2000 to 2008.  I see a modest rise into a broad peak between 2003 and 2006, with a net decrease in the rate of debt growth over the 2000 to 2007 period.  In CY 2008 debt growth goes negative.  Here’s a close-up view.

So much for optimism-fueled debt growth. 

Between the non-existent debt surges Sumner sees a golden age from 1965 to 1973.  I’m a bit puzzled by a golden age boom that straddles one recession and leads directly into another; though I will admit that average GDP growth then looks impressive compared to the GDP growth of the last decade.  But the thing that Sumner misses within his “golden age” is the big debt surge from 1971 to 1974. 

By my reckoning, Sumner is incapable of identifying either a debt surge or an economic boom.  

So what is going on here?  Sumner and Nunes either fail to realize or deliberately ignore that the quantity CMDEBT/GDP has a denominator.  Let’s look at GDP.  Here is YoY GDP growth over the post WW II period.  And, of course, this is NGDP – not inflation adjusted – the very quantity to which Sumner ascribes so much gravitas.

The average GDP growth over the period 1948 to 2007 is 7.04%
The average over the “debt surge” period 1952 to 1964 is 5.35%
The average over the “debt surge” period 1984 to 1991 is 6.85%
The average over the “debt surge” period 2000 to 2007 is 5.24%

What we have are three periods of below average GDP growth, two of them substantially so.  The middle one is only slightly below average, but that is misleading since there is a steep decline in GDP growth over the period.

Consider C = A/B.  If B is small or decreasing, it will tend to make C large or increasing.  To ascribe all of the changes in C to changes in A is to ignore that Ol’ Devil Denominator.  

Sumner does bring up NGDP growth late in the passage quoted above, but I don’t get his point.  If I’m reading him correctly, he claims that NGDP growth crashed between 2000 and 2008, and that caused the Debt/GDP ratio to rise.  But NGDP growth was sharply up from 2001 to 2003, relatively steady through 2006, and never crashed until 2008.  If there is any sense in his argument, somebody will have to explain it to me.   

What actually happened was a real debt surge – but it was between 1997 and 2004.  Meanwhile, GDP growth both before and after the 2000-2003 dip was around 6 to 7%.  Then, in 2006, household debt growth and GDP growth both started to slump, and in 2008 took a nose dive together.

Sumner and Nunes have made a very fundamental error – not so much in the math itself as in the application of logic.  This is sloppy thinking, and any conclusions drawn from it must be highly suspect.

To get a handle on what is really going on, let’s look at debt growth and GDP growth together.

 
They don’t move in lock-step, but the similarity is striking.  Specifically, every recession except 2001 corresponds exactly to a minimum in debt growth.  So Sumner’s advice to “forget about debt” looks like it’s missing something very important – specifically that the household component of spending [aka GDP growth] has been debt financed.  To put it in context, have a look at Krugman’s first graph in the article linked above.   It shows what we all know, but some chose to ignore – that median wages have stagnated for 40 years.

In my narrative, the reason household debt grew to almost 100% of GDP is that stagnating incomes have not been able to support the cost of the American life style – due to decades of inflation, but probably largely driven by the costs of health care and education.  Remember – contra the prevailing view of economists today – spending, and therefore GDP growth, is directly dependent on income, not on wealth

Debt is a useful tool that develops into a problem when it becomes too burdensome to service.  Looking at debt as a percentage of GDP provides a clue as to how serviceable the debt is.  When you also consider that all of the GDP growth over several decades has gone to the top income earners, you can see that the debt servicing problem is made that much worse for the average person. 

Nunes thinks debt rises when people are optimistic about the future, and he weaves a narrative based on that idea.  He then blames the 2008 collapse on bad policy, including a contractionary Fed.   He appears to want spending growth, but refuses to recognize the exhausted ability of ordinary people to spend.

In my view – and I think the data supports it – Krugman and Art have this exactly right.  And, as is nearly always the case, those who disagree with PK on what is happening in the real word have to invent a fantasy-world explanation – or, if I can borrow an especially tortured metaphor from Nunes,  pull a red herring out of a hat.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Who Determines Short Term Interest Rates?

Do you think it’s the Fed?

It’s not.

The market determines short term interest rates.

Really.

The Federal Funds Rate, which is set by the Fed, FOLLOWS 3 month T-Bill rates.  It does not lead the economy.  Here are some looks.  First the whole data set, going back to 1954, presented in Graph 1.

Federal Funds data from FRED.

T-Bill rates from a different Federal Reserve site

These are tabulated monthly values.  But the T-Bill rate is set in a weekly auction, and the Fed Funds rate is set by the Fed Open Market Committee, on an arbitrary schedule, at their discretion. 

Graph 1  Fed Funds and 3 Mo. T Bill Rates, 1954-2011

Not exactly lock step, but they are a couple of clinging vines.  At this scale, it’s pretty hard to tell who leads and who follows.  Let’s look closer at the last few decades.  First, the all-time highs of the early 80’s, in Graph 2.

Graph 2  Fed Funds and 3 Mo. T Bill Rates, 1978-84

Here, the Fed Funds are in green and the T-Bill rate in orange, with the moves off of tops and bottoms highlighted in other colors.  Fed Funds tend to run a bit above T-Bills.  From this data, T-Bill rates generally change direction in the same month or the month prior to a Fed Funds change.

Graph 3  Fed Funds and 3 Mo. T Bill Rates, 1978-84

Same story in Graph 3: either concurrent motion or T-Bills are slightly ahead.  For the two downward moves at the beginnings of 1990 and 1995, they are three to four months ahead.

The story is similar for the most recent decade, shown in Graph 4.

Graph 4  Fed Funds and 3 Mo. T Bill Rates, 2000-2008

Looks like the Fed is a close follower of T-Bill rates, usually within a month or so.  Coming off a diffuse top, the lag can be a little longer.

Graph 5 shows a close up of 2001-5, without the odd colors.  T-Bill leadership is easily seen.

Graph 5  Fed Funds and 3 Mo. T Bill Rates, 2001-05

Two questions present themselves:

1) Does the Fed have any real power to influence interest rates?
2) What would happen if they attempted to move counter to the market?

In my mind, this casts serious doubt on the usefulness of interest rate manipulations as a monetary policy lever.   What do you think?
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A Different Look at GDP and Inflation

At Illusion of Prosperity, Stagflationary Mark posted this scatter-graph of quarterly GDP YoY growth and CPI data from Q1, 1948 through Q4, 2011.  Each point represents the differences from the medians of each data set for each of the variables, respectively.  This gives you a picture of time spent above and below what might be considered normal performance.

I wondered how this would look if each point were identified by presidential administration, and if this would suggest any particular narrative.  So I redid the graph, data from FRED, using mean instead of median as the determinant.  It is presented here as Graph 1, with each data point (256 total) color-coded by presidential party; red for Republicans, blue for Democrats.  The calendar quarter of each president’s inauguration is allotted to the previous administration.

I’ve labeled the quadrants as follows, and indicated the frequency of data points populating each quadrant.

Here are the Mean and Standard Deviation values.

 

Graph 1  CPI and GDP, data from FRED

The GDP data has something close to a normal distribution, with approximate symmetry around the mean. The CPI data does not. For CPI, the highest frequency is 2 percentage points below the mean, and there is a long tail on the high side, so the distribution looks more like a Poisson type.

I’ve broken out presidential administrations, 3 or 4 to a graph, to avoid excessive clutter.  Graph 2 shows the administrations of Truman (light blue), Eisenhower (red), and Kennedy-Johnson (dark blue.)

Graph 2  CPI and GDP, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy-Johnson

Results during the Truman administration were erratic, with both inflation and deflation occurring, and GDP growth widely variable as the nation made post WW II adjustments, and several million G.I.’s reentered the work force.  Ike was an inflation hawk, and one of only two presidents to achieve below average inflation in every quarter of his administration.  (Take your guess now as to who the other might be.  All will be revealed in due time.)  Still, the road was bumpy, with GDP growth highly variable, and two rather severe recessions during his term.  The Kennedy-Johnson administration enjoyed superior economic performance and relatively low inflation, with only 6 quarters of below average GDP growth, and only five quarters of above average inflation during the entire 8 years.  This was one of only two administrations to avoid recession for an entire 8-year term.

Graph 3 shows the Nixon-Ford (orange), Carter (blue), and Reagan (red) administrations.

Graph 3  CPI and GDP, Nixon-Ford, Carter, Reagan

Here we find three increasingly extreme excursions into stagflationary territory, two under Nixon-Ford (remember Whip Inflation Now buttons?) and one under Carter. The first and mildest was in 1970, the second in 1974-5, and the last, in 1979-80 probably played a part in holding Carter to a single term.  Inflation far above average plagued both of those administrations.  Each spent time above and below average in GDP growth with term averages very close to the grand average.  However, Carter’s last two years were consistently below average, and coupled with high inflation, earning him his moribund reputation.  Early in Reagan’s first term, Volker finished slaying the inflation dragon.  But the cost was high in terms of depressed GDP growth, and during that time Reagan was extremely unpopular.  But, as the economy recovered, so did his reputation, and he is now remembered, for good or for ill, as one of America’s most beloved presidents.  The remainder of his presidency resided along at least one of the two average lines, including four consecutive quarters of exceptional GDP growth coupled with only slightly above average inflation, spanning 1983-4.

Graph 4 shows the Bush Sr. (orange), Clinton (light blue), Bush Jr.(red), and Obama (dark blue) administrations.

Graph 4  CPI and GDP, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama

During the Bush Sr. administration, 11 of 16 quarters had below average GDP growth, 10 quarters had above average inflation, 8 of these quarters had both.  Clinton’s term began and ended with below average GDP growth, but during his 8 years here were only 9 below average quarters.  Four of them occurred in sequence from Q2, 1995 to Q1, 1996, but the remainder of 1996 was quite strong, and Clinton was granted a second term. Clinton was both the other president who avoided having even a single quarter of above average inflation, and the other president who avoided having a recession during an entire 8-year term.  During the 8-year term of Bush Jr. there were only 4 quarters of only slightly above average GDP growth, occurring from 2003 to 2005.  There were 7 quarters of above average inflation, 3 of them just barely so in 2005-6, and the other 4 in 2007-8, just prior to the economic collapse.  The remainder of his term was in the mild doldrums region.  The collapse ushered in the Obama administration.  Within his first year, the economy was back into the mild doldrums area that has so far been typical of the current century. 

Here is one more graph, showing how each administration performed, as an average over its entire term.  Starting with Truman, the yellow line leads us to each successive administration, up to Obama.

Obama’s position suffers from the recession he inherited.  Whether he gets reelected or not, his average will move up each remaining quarter of his presidency.  If he gets a second term, we can expect more of the doldrums we have experienced over the last two years.

This clearly belies the Romney claim that Obama’s economic policies have failed.  His policies have moved us from near-depression to mere mediocrity.  That counts as some sort of success.

So, here is my narrative.  First off, one can argue that the president does not directly determine the economic fate of the country, and that is partly true.  The other part is that the president sets the policy and the tone, and that both of these things matter.

–  The only presidents to have achieved term averages in the prosperity quadrant were Democrats.
–  The only Republican to achieve above average real GDP growth was Reagan, and that was only by an increment.
–  The only president since Reagan to achieve higher GDP growth than his predecessor was Clinton, other than that, it’s been a downward spiral.
–   Carter had below average GDP growth by a slight margin, but he beat every Republican other than Reagan, and he didn’t trail him by much.
– The last 44 years have been characterized by secular decreases in both CPI inflation and GDP growth.
– They have also been characterized by Republican presidencies 64% of the time, decreasing regulation, lowered tax rates, safety net erosion, loss of labor union strength and participation, and the systematic undoing of of New Deal policies.

What I conclude is that New Deal (dare I say Keynesian?) policies were successful in generating real prosperity, and free market policies have been far less successful.  Over time, Reaganomic trickle-down, free market policies have given us first, the Great Stagnation, and ultimately the worst economic crisis in 80 years.  These policies were, by no coincidence at all, quite similar to those in effect when the Great Depression of the 30’s happened – and also all the other earlier depressions that are no longer very prominent in people’s memories.

As I said, policy matters – and it matters profoundly.

With that in mind, here is my question to the Fed:  Since the average of CPI inflation since WW II is 3.7%, and there is ample evidence that we can have very reasonable economic performance with inflation in that range, why have you set an inflation target that is effectively half of that level, while ignoring high unemployment –  the other half of your alleged dual mandate?

Of course, I’m being rhetorical.  It’s because they are bankers, and inflation favors creditors borrowers, not lenders.  The fact is they don’t care one whit about unemployment.

Policy.

It matters.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Another Look at Wealth and Consumption – Pt 2

Correlations and Slopes Over Time

In Part 1, we looked at the ratio of consumption spending to net worth, and how it changed over time.  This time we’ll look at the correlation between net worth and consumption.

Here is the big picture: personal consumption expenditures (FRED Series PCE) plotted against Net Worth (FRED series TNWBSHNO) Data is per calendar quarter.

Graph 1  Consumption vs Net Worth, 1959 – 2011

The data set is divided into two segments, with a break point at the beginning of 1997, with net worth at $30,315 and consumption at $5,467.  In a close up view, there is a clear slope change there.  Still, the selection is a bit arbitrary, since the high point of Q3, 1994, could also have been chosen, with net worth at $25291, and PCE at $4856.  But that is a detail, and no other reasonable breaks stand out.

Notably, both the slope of the data line and R^2 are significantly less after the break.  Visually, it’s obvious that in the later data, there is a lot more scatter.  Also note that that big data moves post 1997 return to the continuation of the best fit line, pre-1997.
Slope and R^2 measurements for the entire data set and the two segments are presented in Table 1. These numbers were generated using the linear trendline function in Excel.

 Table 1
 

Not so visually obvious are the declining slopes during the earlier portion of the data set.  Table 2 presents the same characteristics for data chunks of approximately 20 year duration.

Table 2

We saw in part 1 of this series that the relationship of consumption to net worth was not stable, so this result is not surprising.  And we can now see that as net worth increases, the sensitivity of consumption to increasing net worth decreases.

I can think of two contributing factors.  As wealth increases, the need to spend on basic necessities captures a smaller portion of that wealth, so the propensity to spend decreases.  I’ll defer consideration of the other factor for now.

Here is a detailed look at how the slope of the PCE vs net worth line varied over time.  Graph 2 shows the 34 quarter slope values for the data points of graph 1.  The slope is plotted in dark blue, with certain time spans highlighted in contrasting colors: recessions are in orange, and the stock market and housing bubbles are in yellow.

Graph 2 Slope of Consumption vs Net Worth

Observations:
1) Except for the bubbles and the spike in the post-bubble recession of 2008, the values are mostly contained between a low of 0.168 and a high 0.246.
2) There was an upward trend that ended in the mid-70’s, underscored with a blue line.
3) Values after the mid-70’s, including the two bubbles, are contained in a down-sloping channel, outlined in green.
4)  Except for the early 80’s and 90’s events, recessions are marked by sharp, temporary slope increases.
5) The average slope is 0.184, with a standard deviation of .038
6) The bubbles highlighted in yellow in Graph 2 correspond exactly to the data points in Graph 1 that fall below the red best fit line.
7) The post-bubble recessions brought the slope back into the range described in Observation 1.  This is illustrated in Graph 1 by the returns to the blue best fit line.

If the normal relationship between net worth and consumption is described by a slope in the range of around 0.17 to 0.25, what is there about bubbles that causes drops into the range of 0.11 to 0.12 at the peaks?  I think the answer is the second factor that I defered until now.  The stock bubble and the housing bubble represented wealth increases that were not shared equally across the population.  Specifically, as I pointed out earlier, these assets are mostly owned by the richest population segment, and growth in wealth has excessively favored the top 1% of the population.   They have the least propensity to spend, and this tendency drives the PCE slope into the low range.

This FRED graph illustrates the point in a different way.

Graph 3 PCE, Net Worth and Disposable Income

There are four lines, Net Worth in green (divided by 5 to put it on the same scale); Disposable Income in purple, PCE in red, and Disposible Income multiplied by 0.931 in blue.  Note that the last two overlap almost perfectly, as I also pointed out earlier (see link above.)

The conclusions I’m drawing are
1) Since the bubbles increased wealth in a highly skewed fashion, the relationship between average wealth and consumption broke down.
2) When the bubbles burst, the normal relationship between wealth and consumption reasserted itself.
3) The underlying cause is that during the bubbles the relationship between wealth and income broke down, and afterwards reasserted itself.
4) The relationship between disposable income and consumption is robust across time and most extraordinary financial events.
5) All the foregoing suggest that if wealth distribution were more even across the population (and thus more closely tied to disposable income,) then the relationship between wealth and consumption would be more robust.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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