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

And the Wrong Words Make You Listen in this Criminal World

Mark Thoma, who supported (and probably voted for) the man during the primaries, is dumuch more gracious than I am:

A vague promise from Democrats about the future is all but worthless right now, we’ve had too many promises broken already. Obama’s promises in particular mean nothing.

The nicest thing I can do is describe this as BarryO’s “Only Nixon could go to China moment.” But that’s because that slimy cocksucker was willing to sell out two countries—Formosa and Tibet—so he could discuss panda sex with Margaret Trudeau.

Obama’s version is selling out Democrats and Middle-Class and Aspiring Middle-Class Americans. When the best hope is that Stan Collender is right that bending over and sucking off isn’t going to be good enough for House Republicans, it’s time for all you idiots who said no one should run against BarryO “from the left” to do the honorable thing and find your wakizashi and prepare four cups of sake. (I’m certain there will be plenty of kaishkunin volunteers to aid you in Doing the Right Thing.)

Democrats may still run someone against Obama from the left, though Timothy McVeigh is unavailable. But the attempt to destroy their political viability has been executed perfectly. Glad BarryO “plays eleven-dimensional chess” now?

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Investment, Consumption, and Progressive Taxation

Hey remember me? Just a quick driveby to start some discussion.

Classical, neo-classical, and neo-liberal economics all share a common mistaken psychological premise, one that is simple but deep, and in itself explains why they don’t understand the aims of Progressive Taxation.

Label it how you like, the academic discipline that emerged from England in the 18th and 19th century implicitly, hell I’ll make it stronger, explicitly assumed that the goal of capitalism is accumulation, i.e. getting more an more numbers on the right side of the ledger sheet. Which assumption seems blindingly obvious, which is why it is simple and goes so deep. In this model taxation on gains from capital serve to displace investment on the equally simple assumption that if you tax something people do less of it. Again perhaps blazingly obvious.

But it doesn’t hold up well against the historical record either narrowly considered in relation to 18th and 19th century England or more broadly across cultures and across history. Instead in most of those cultures and most definitely in Georgian and then Victorian England the evidence is strong that capitalists saw investment as the means to different ends, those of consumption and display that in turn would lead to societal status. You only have to look at the great Country Houses that were built during this period, with no expenses spared inside or out whether that be on landscape architects or silversmiths. And even a passing familiarity with say English literature of the time shows this on full display, the manufacturing classes rushing to build those country houses and buy their daughters way into society as soon as they could afford it, the facts on the ground clearly show that the driving goal of most investors was to finance consumption and display in the form of dress and habitations. Let us put it this way Scrooge was not then or now considered the hero, and throughout history the miser has been a despised and mocked figure.

Now this runs directly against the “blindingly obvious” assumption that the goal of investment is purely accumulation. So what happens when we substitute ‘consumption and display’? Well a couple of things. First we can recognize that under some circumstances accumulation IS display, rankings on the list of ‘the most wealthy X of Y’s’ being just as important as more explicit displays of status on the British and European pattern. And since the U.S. doesn’t have patents of nobility, this aspect of accumulation as display has an outside importance. But in any case none of it seems to effect the other side of the equation, very few billionaires not named Warren Buffet actually resist the temptation to buy the multiple mansions, the penthouse apartments on Central Park, the yacht, the vacations in the South of France, the jewelry, the trophy or society wives (depending on whether they are new or old money). You just don’t have the MOTUs reinvesting every single penny, instead when given an opening they can and do spend and often in the most conspicuous ways possible, there not being much difference between an American billionaire of today and a 16th century British Duke or more to the point a 19th century Manchester industrialist in this regards. Instead re-investment is often seen as just the vehicle needed to climb to the next consumption level.

So what does this have to do with progressive taxation? Well once you accept the assumption that the fundamental goal of investment among the upper classes is consumption and display and further that in most cases that consumption doesn’t have the multiplicative effects on the wider economy that re-investment would then the goal of progressive taxation becomes obvious, and by the way a lot less socialist than the old shibboleth of redistribution. The goal of progressive taxation in the classical political liberal position dominate in this country from 1913-1980 was to penalize consumption and favor re-investment. After all at least under current law gains on capital are by and large not exposed to federal taxation until they are realized, if instead they are plowed back into productivity improvements they are at the corporate or individual level largely tax exempt. It is only when you take the equity out in the form of interest, dividends or simply cashing out equity that tax is encured.

The logical conclusion of this model is that if we accept the principle that to tax something is to induce people to do it less, if nothing else by increasing its marginal cost, then Supply Side becomes the Voodoo the Elder Bush always said it was. Lowering top marginal rates and taxing capital gains at half the rates of capital income would under my model have the effect of encouraging consumption and discouraging reinvestment. Whereas high rates would have the opposite effect. Which has the advantage of being testable, if we had to constrast the 50s and the 80s in terms of the consumption patterns of the near the top level of capitalists and managers we see a lot less conspicuous consumption among the former than we do in the post Reagan-era. In the 50s and 60s only Greek shipping magnates could afford the kind of consumption patterns that became common in before, during, and after the Enron era and certainly continuing today. From my perspective all Supply Side did was to lower the cost of consumption in pre-tax dollars, purchases that were inconceivable in the days of 90 and then 70% top rates have become routine in the days of 15%.

Which suggests that the current neo-liberal surrender to the idea that any increase in tax on capital inevitably will lead to disinvestment, almost as if it were an accounting identity, when history suggests the effects are the other way around, capitalists wanting to maintain the same level of consumption in a higher tax environment simply needing to intensify their re-investment rather than lazily take those gains out in the form of salaries, bonuses, and dividends.

You could sum up the whole argument by saying that Manchester and allied schools of economics assumes that everyone behaved like a Northern European Calvinist Burgher, or more narrowly that the triumph of capitalism was represented in the premises of Scrooge and Marley.

BTW this substitution of ‘consumption’ for ‘accummulation’ has explanatory powers far outside the narrow confines of capitalist taxation. A great deal about peasant economies that have historically baffled both branches of liberal economics, that which led to Chicago and that which gave us Marx, in my view stemmed from not getting that most peasants even in the strictest systems organized their economic life around consumption targets rather than growing net worth (say by acquiring more fields). You get a strong whiff of this with the modern bafflement that the French would substitute 35 hour weeks with seven weeks of vacation for longer hours that would lead to higher net worth. Do they not want to get rich? Well yes, but to what end? Adopt a consumption based model and lots about the European system and early retirement here starts making perfect sense.

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Wilder on ‘Real retail sales in Europe: will German consumers save the day? Maybe, perhaps’

After the US report on Q2… Angry Bear and credit market weakness in the eurozone, Rebecca takes a look at the retail side of the economy:

Retail sales in Germany and Spain were reported last week for the month of June. On a working-day and not-seasonally adjusted basis, real retail sales fell 7.0% on the year in Spain. In contrast, working-day and seasonally adjusted real retail sales surged over the month in Germany, 6.3%, and posted a 2.6% annual gain.
But the Spanish data is better than the non-seasonal numbers would suggest. In fact, accounting for seasonal factors as in the manner done by the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, Spanish real retail sales posted a monthly gain, 1.2% in June. Don’t get too giddy on me – the Spanish data looks awful in a small panel (time series and cross section).

The rest of the post is here: Real retail sales in Europe: will German consumers save the day? Maybe, perhaps

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Observations From the Past 3.5 Years

by Mike Kimel

Observations From the Past 3.5 Years

Being alive in the past 3.5 years provides the following lessons:

1. Significant elements of the government, influenced to one or another degree by private sector lobbying and contributions, have done a poor job at leading the country.
2. Significant elements of the financial industry, influenced to one or another degree by government rules and regulations, have done a poor job of investing assets.
3. Significant elements of the home buying public, influenced to one degree or another by government policy and the financial sector, have done a poor job at buying houses.
4. Significant elements of the economics profession, influenced to one degree or other by ideology and a mercenary mindset, have done a poor job of understanding the economy.

That raises a few questions:

a. Is there any way to show that of the elements described above, the private sector or public sector is more or less inefficient at what they do?
b. Of the elements described above, which of those that failed at what they did on average, have paid or will pay a price, and which of those that failed at what they did, on average, have or will “failed upwards?”
c. Given b, which of the elements described above can be counted on to create a “next time around” or of making that next time around worse?

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The Q2 US GDP report – just terrible

Bureau of Economic Analysis today reported that real gross domestic product in the US increased at an annual rate of 1.3% in the second quarter of 2011. This (newly revised – see below) acceleration in real GDP was driven primarily by a slowdown in import demand, stronger federal spending, and a pickup in non-residential fixed investment. Real gross domestic purchases – GDP minus net exports – was weaker than the headline, increasing 0.7% on the quarter, reflecting the positive contribution from external demand. Domestic demand is barely growing – remember these are annualized rates, not q.q rates.


READ MORE AFTER THE JUMP!
Below the hood, the pace of personal consumption expenditures slowed markedly, +0.1% in the second quarter compared to +2.1% in the first. Some of the drag to consumption will bounce back in the third quarter, as auto sales and the supply chain disruptions dissipate – durable goods decreased 4.4% over the quarter. On the bright side, real nonresidential fixed investment picked up 6.3% in the second quarter and tripling the pace seen in the first. Real net exports contributed a large 0.58% to the headline growth number, as real exports maintained a healthy pace and imports decelerated over the quarter.

Overall, I think that the story is pretty consistent with the details of the labor market: the economy is improving, but domestic demand is very weak.The US economy is increasingly likely to enter a ‘growth recession’ – sub-potential growth – in 2011. And as David Altig highlights, a growth recession is generally associated with an economic contraction.

On the revisions

The drop in Q1 2011 growth to 0.4% was certainly not expected. Much of it was due to a reclassification of domestic inventory build (adds to GDP) to imports (subtracts from GDP). But there’s a lot more.

Today’s estimates reflect the annual revisions of the US national accounts. The revisions date back to 2003, which show a deeper recession and a quicker rebound. We now know that GDP bottomed in the second quarter of 2009, after having fallen 5.1% since the fourth quarter of 2007. Previously, the cumulative drop in GDP was 4.1%. The recovery through Q1 2011 was slightly faster, 4.9% in the pre-revised data compared to 4.64% in the revised series. (Rdan….4.9% is correct figure)


(Rdan: revised chart to correct calculation error…8/1)

Broadly speaking, though, the revisions show that economic momentum is petering out on a 6-month/6-month annualized basis. In sum, nominal spending on consumption goods and services was revised downward by 307.8 billion dollars spanning the years 2008-2010, and nominal fixed investment spending dropped by 83.9 billion dollars compared to previous estimates. Government spending is proving to be less of a drag than previously thought (in nominal terms), having been revised 5 billion dollars higher compared to previous estimates over the same period.

On balance, the expected 2011 growth trajectory will struggle to top 2%, as a rather positive 2H 2011 of 3.0% and 3.5% in Q3 and Q4, respectively, would imply a 1.9% Y/Y pace for 2011 as a while. I seriously doubt we’ll get that trajectory in H2 2011 – we’ll have to see what economists now forecast – but the downside risk to the economy is pervasive. It’s not just Japan.

Rebecca Wilder

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Wilder’s news on Euro area credit markets

Rebecca takes note of credit growth in many of the Euro countries and notes indications of continued deteriorating macro economies in Newsneconomics:

Today the ECB released details on monetary aggregates for the euro area. According to the statement on the asset side of the consolidated balance sheet of the euro area monetary financial institutions (MFIs):

the annual growth rate of total credit granted to euro area residents decreased to 2.6% in June 2011, from 3.1% in the previous month. The annual growth rate of credit extended to general government decreased to 4.6% in June, from 5.7% in May, while the annual growth rate of credit extended to the private sector decreased to 2.2% in June, from 2.5% in the previous month

Weak credit growth is entirely consistent with the deteriorating pace of the macroeconomy (see Edward Hugh’s post here). How does 2.2% annual credit growth compare to history?

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Debt Ceiling Consequences

If the debt ceiling is not raised at some point the US government will be unable to meet all of its obligations.

I assume that they will make their interest payments and bond redemptions on schedule and the shortfall will be in paying social secutiry, medicare, military and other obligations. This will naturally impact aggregrate demand and generate a significant negative impact on the economy. Given the severe weakness in the economy this shock most likely would tilt the economy into a recession.

This is rather straight forward analysis, but the more severe situation would be the consequences of the government failing to redeem T bonds and/or T bills or failing to make an interest payment of these debt obligations.

Large business and financial institutions do not leave large sums sitting around not earning interest. For the most part firms invest idle balances in T bills. This reached the point long ago where banks introduced sweep accounts where they will go through a firms deposits late in the day and sweep their balance out and invest them in T bills overnight. This is where the risk free instrument comes to play a major role in the financial system and the economy. In many ways the risk free investment of T bills are like the oil in an engine. It provides the buffer or lubrication in the financial system that allow the various moving parts of the economy to move freely and not rub against each other. If the risk free instrument of the T bill is removed from the system there is nothing around of sufficient size to provide the lubrication that the system requires. Thus, if firms no longer have T bills or risk free instruments to invest in there is a danger that the financial system will seize up like an engine without oil. It becomes a question of confidence and we could quickly have a repeat of something like what happened in 2008 after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and lenders pulled in their horns and refused to lend to otherwise good credits. This is why those claiming that the US defaulting on its debts would not have severe and wide-ranging consequences are completely wrong. It is why some of the largest financial institutions are already starting to take measures to protect themselves against this possibility.

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Notes Toward Modeling a Risk-Free Rate with Default Possibilities

Brad DeLong asks why it hasn’t been done, if it hasn’t been done.  The biggest problem I can see is that you don’t know how insane the participants are—and that will have a major effect on how much damage is done when.

Don’t get me wrong; the damage is already being done; it has been since at least May, and if Barack H. Obama weren’t an idiot, he would have been mentioning that over the past two months.  Unfortunately, the sun is yellow on our world, and counterfactuals are masturbatory, not participatory, acts.

So let’s start with what we know:

i= r + πe

Nick Rowe apparently would have us believe his (completely understandable) claim that i would not be directly affected by a short-term default. This strikes me as absurd.
Even when the economy is working on all cylinders–where G contributes something around 10-15% of growth at most—reducing G to zero for a week is about 2% of 15% or 0.2%-0.3%—noticeable, but arguably rounding error against the difference between π and πe. So, if you assume a short-term issue, you get something like those legendary two weeks from 11-22 September 2001, when only the Saudi Royal Family was spending anything, writ somewhat smaller only because Gunderstates the effect on r.)

We can concede that inflation expectations themselves aren’t going to go up independently: any additional borrowing cost will be a drag on r, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that i will be fairly steady—again, working a very short-term issue.

But, as often happens, we leave out a variable in our assumptions, simply because we define i as the risk-free rate of return.  Let’s put it back in:

i= (r + πe)*(1+ Pd)

Where (1+Pd) is 100% plus the probability that there will not be a default. (Note that in a model environment, Pd=0, otherwise, we would not call it risk-free: actors have the power to make and manage budgets, including the power to tax to pay for services desired by their plutocrats constituents.)

Finance people will recognize this reduced form equation:.  (1+ Pd)= β, the risk of the stock or portfolio in excess of the risk of the market.  For convenience, let’s just call this version Ω. So,

i= (r + πe)*Ω

Next comes the hard part: term structure.  Or, as Robert said in a similar context, are you talking about the Federal Funds rate, or the rate on three-month Treasury Bills?

Well, that depends on how long we expect the issue to be an issue.  If Barack “I’m an idiot who stands for nothing and you’ll vote for me anyway because my opponent will be insane” Obama treated this “crisis” the way he treated the last (real) one, he would insist on getting a clean bill raising the debt ceiling passed through both Houses and on his desk for signing by the end of next week.  If he takes it as another chance to blow Cass Sunstein and the rest of his University of Chicago buddies, then it’s a complicated bill that will get a few Congressmen killed* and several others de-elected, and we might be talking weeks.

Right now, the markets are assuming the former.  Let’s be optimistic and assume they’re correct.

Four weeks ago, there was a Treasury Bill auction that produced a yield of  0.00%.  Extending that bill does no harm at all—not even to expected debt totals. (Investors mileage may vary, but they bought it with full knowledge of the timing.  And there were 10% again behind them bidding at the same rate.)

Some specific Notes and probably Bonds—it is August—will have coupon payments due on the 15th. But those are coupons, not principal repayment, so again we’re not talking much value of the Note or Bond itself, once you hit five years or so.

Bills will be a problem.  Short-term notes will be a problem.  Fed Funds is uncharted territory.  Tripartite Repo specifically, and Repo in general will be a major problem due to questions of collateral value.  And guess who uses those the most?  Hedge fundsThe people who have been financing John Boehner’s and Eric Cantor’s campaigns.

So the term structure looks like it would if you’re going into a recession: short-term rates rise significantly, while the longer term securities shift upward a bit. (Select Notes and Bonds with near-term coupons kink the curve, but there’s no certain arbitrage there, especially with transaction costs.  Cheapest-to-deliver calculation is also affected in the futures market. I could go on, but let’s just pretend—correctly—that these are minor issues.)

Because now our “baseline” rate is no longer risk-free—and we’re not certain what Pd is over time.  We know it will return to zero at some point, and we presume (at least at the beginning) that it will be soon. But we also know that there already are follow-on effects, and that they will only get worse. Even if we ignore the effect on G (and therefore i) of a short-term default, we lose our bearings for a while.

So the big question is collateral and spreads.  Been posting Treasuries to borrow against?  Yields up due to Pd > 0, so prices down, so less flow. And probably haircuts due to uncertainty of any return to “risk-free.” Posting Treasuries with a coupon due?  Haircut! Posting Treasuries with a near-term coupon?  Haircut! Posting Munis?  Think Michael Jordan (or Telly Savalas, if you’re Of a Certain Age).  So you can borrow less, and probably have to sell some of your assets.

Which ones?  If we’re lucky, it’s longer-term Treasuries, and some of the yield curve inversion mentioned earlier is reduced.  But the market is going to be less liquid than usual, so maybe some of those other bonds get sold—corporates, for instance.  The bid-offer on Munis is basically going to be zero-coupon bonds at a high discount. (Think fast about how many state and local municipal projects depend on some form of Federal funding.  Then realize that your estimate is probably low by an order of magnitude.)  Or corporations that are dependent on government funds (DoD providers, automobile fleets, interstate paving contractors, power supply and distribution companies, etc.)

In a ridiculously oversimplified model, the spreads simply expand by Ω, with a possible adjustment downward based on direct exposure to government financing. This, again, probably understates the effect.

So, in a closed economy, everyone gets to pretend things are close to the same—just more expensive, with a lot of damage to hedge funds and municipalities and borrowing costs and credit lines. So money supply drops significantly (multiplier effect reduction) even without Fed intervention.  You get an Economic Miracle: reduced supply and higher yields.

But we don’t live in a closed economy.  So there’s another factor.  And I’m running out of Greek letters, so let’s just use an abbreviation everyone knows:

i= (r + πe)*Ω*d(FXd)

where d(FXd) is the change in the FX rate due to the default adding uncertainty to cash flows.

That’s right: we get not one but two economic miracles:  (1) domestically, a reduced supply of risk-free securities produces higher yields and (2) internationally, higher yields lead to a depreciation of the domestic currency.

Anyone still wonder why no one wants to build the full model?

*No, I don’t want this to be the scenario.  But if you offered me the bet, I wouldn’t take the under at 0.99.

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