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

Drain the Ukrainian Swamp

Drain the Ukrainian Swamp

Trump’s latest excuse for withholding arms for the Ukrainian government to defend itself against Putin’s invitations so he can extract dirt against the Bidens is what again? Oh yea – he wants to root out corruption. REALLY? OK – start with this:

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — As Rudy Giuliani was pushing Ukrainian officials last spring to investigate one of Donald Trump’s main political rivals, a group of individuals with ties to the president and his personal lawyer were also active in the former Soviet republic. Their aims were profit, not politics. This circle of businessmen and Republican donors touted connections to Giuliani and Trump while trying to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company. Their plan was to then steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies, according to two people with knowledge of their plans.

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Elisabeth Warren Has a Plan for America First

I plan to vote for Warren in the primary and general election, but I am not thrilled by all aspects of her plan for economic patriotism. I also have doubts about medicare for all (good policy bad politics) and forgiving student debt (good politics bad policy).

Trying to be brief and actually get to the topic of this post, my problem with Medicare for All is that people fear change and, while a majority support a Medicare option, a minority supports just enrolling everyone in Medicare aotomatically. I am in that minority, but Medicare for All is bad politics and also will never actually be approved by the Senate. Student loan forgiveness is the opposite. Many people burdened by student debt will vote for a candidate who promises to forgive it. But they are not the people most in need. They are US college graduates and relatively wealthy (even if not as fortunate as older graduates who got degrees when tuition was much lower). I do support free (public) college. The difference is that not charging tuition encourages people to get bachelors degrees which reduces supply of people without bachelors degrees and increases their relative wages (see the huge accidental experiment of enrollment to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war and the dramatic decline in the college wage premium). Given to someone who has already made the decision does not have this effect. It is special interest politics with beneficiaries who know exactly who they are at the cost of other programs or lower taxes or who knows ? (well rich people know they will be hammered by Warren and will vote for her only if they are patriotic, but there aren’t many of them).

OK now the plan for economic patriotism. I am sure this is excellent politics. I support some of the proposals (more money for apprenticeships so not all of the subsidies for education go to fancy pants bachelor’s degrees). I object to some. I also disagree with some of the analysis (which is a critique of work by friends of mine and is provocative and very high quality for a candidates web site).

First the general focus is on helping US workers also against foreign workers. I know this is almost universally accepted as a goal, but I find myself in the tiny minority who are against that. The income of US blue collar workers is pretty high up the world income distribution. I reject nationalism and oppose the aspects of patriotism which overlap with nationalism. This is a question of values not analysis and I won’t type more about it.

Second, the web page argues that the problem for US manufacturing workers is trade not technology. This is actually engaging in the economics debate at a reasonably high level.

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Does France Have an “Exorbitant Privilege”?

by Joseph Joyce

Does France Have an “Exorbitant Privilege”?

The U.S. has long been accused of using the international role of the dollar to exercise an “exorbitant privilege.” The term, first used by French finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, refers to the ability of the U.S. to finance its current account deficits and acquire foreign assets by issuing dollars as a reserve currency. While flexible exchange rates have lowered the need for reserve currencies, the use of the dollar in international trade and finance ensures that there is a continuing need for dollar-denominated assets. The status of the dollar contributes to the surplus in U.S. international investment income despite its negative net international investment position (NIIP). But France also has a surplus in international investment income and a negative NIIP. Does it possess its own privilege?

The U.S. surplus reflects the composition of its external balance sheet as well as the return on its assets and liabilities. The U.S. has a positive balance on equity, and in particular, FDI, which is offset by the negative balance on portfolio securities, such as bonds. U.S. Treasury bonds are the universal “safe asset,” held by private foreign investors as well as central banks. The return on the equity assets exceeds that paid on the debt liabilities, thus yielding a positive investment income balance. This is the return that the U.S. receives for playing the role of the “world’s venture capitalist,” according to Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School. In addition, the U.S. receives a higher return on its FDI assets than it pays out on its FDI liabilities.

France also has a negative NIIP but a positive net international investment income balance. In 2018, for example, it received $35.6 billion in investment income. Moreover, the Banque de France pointed out in the 2015 Annual Report on the French Balance of Payments and International Investment Position that while the ratio of outward direct investment stocks to liabilities was 2 to 1, the ratio of FDI receipts to payments was 3 to 1. The French surplus, like that of the U.S., therefore can be attributed to both a “composition” effect reflecting the difference in the types of assets and liabilities it possesses, but also a “returns” effect due to the relatively higher return on its direct investment assets vis-à-vis its liabilities.

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Have we finally reached “full employment”?

Have we finally reached “full employment”?

As I noted on Friday, the household report – the one that tells us about unemployment, underemployment, and labor force participation – was particularly good. In fact, the last two months together have been so good that, at least by some measures, we may finally have arrived at “full employment.”

Let’s start with the basics. Gains in employment as measured by the household survey (blue in the graphs below), as opposed to the larger (and, yes, more reliable) payrolls survey (red), were 590,000 and 391,000 in the last two months, respectively. Those were the biggest gains in nearly a year:

 

At 3.5%, that gave us the lowest unemployment rate in the past 65 years (except for a few months in 1968-69):

 

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The Repo Ruckus

The Repo Ruckus

This is now about three weeks old news, but it is increasingly clear that it is not clear why it happened or if it will happen again.  There was an outbreak of completely unexpected volatility in the repo market, where in the past the Fed had carried out open market operations, although that had largely passed.  Indeed in more recent years when the Fed has intervened in markets it has been in the reverse repo market.  In any case, interests rates shot up as high as 9 or 10 percent at one point, with the federal funds rate also getting out of its allowed range on the upside, although not by that much.  The New York Fed pumped about $400 billion into the market to stabilize it, so there was no immediate fallout from this, and if it happens again, probably the Fed can do it again. Nevertheless, this is a sign of things going on in the markets that are poorly understood, and John Williams, the New York Fed president has come under criticism for not providing any clear explanations.

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Expect a weak report for the leading jobs sectors on Friday

Expect a weak report for the leading jobs sectors on Friday

September motor vehicle sales will be reported later today, after the domestic US manufacturers post their numbers. Sales of all other vehicles were down -13% YoY, but that is without seasonal adjustment including for Labor Day, so the seasonally adjusted sales might tell a completely different story.

In the meantime, with an eye towards Friday’s jobs report, let’s take a look at what is happening with temporary help services, one of the most leading components of employment.

Every week I update the American Staffing Index, (from which site the first four graphs below are taken) which has a 14 year history and in that time has correlated pretty well with the final temp help employment numbers. This year it has turned increasingly negative, and this week had the most negative YoY reading so far, down -5.45% YoY for the single week, and off -4.9% YoY as a 4 week moving average:

Maybe the best way to see how bad this is, is this non-seasonally adjusted look at the index’s entire history:

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First-ever binding end to a border war: Missouri-Kansas UPDATED

First-ever binding end to a border war: Missouri-Kansas UPDATED

(Dan here late….August 2 post) Kansas Governor Laura Kelly has just signed an executive order that prohibits state subsidies being used to move existing Missouri firms in four Missouri counties to three Kansas counties, which together make up the Kansas City metropolitan area. Unlike previous voluntary no-raiding deals, such as NY-NJ-CT, Council of Great Lakes Governors, and even Australia’s Interstate Investment Cooperation Agreement, this is not a voluntary agreement, but one with the force of law, a first in the country’s history.

The binding nature of the agreement comes from the fact that both states have legally bound themselves. In June (h/t New York Times), the Missouri legislature passed and the Governor signed into law restrictions on using state subsidy funds (such as Missouri Works) from being used to attract companies operating in three counties in Kansas in the Kansas City metro area. The law stipulated, however, that this would not go into effect unless Kansas passed similar binding regulations on its state subsidies (Promoting Employment Across Kansas, or PEAK) being used to attract firms on the Missouri side of the metro area. Today’s action by Kansas’ Kelly meets the stipulations of the Missouri law.

Kansas and Missouri have thus joined the European Union as the only areas with legally binding no-raiding rules, anywhere in the world. Of course, the EU’s provisions, based in the Guidelines for Regional Aid, cover the entire territory, whereas the Kansas-Missouri ban only applies in the Kansas City metropolitan area. However, since that’s where almost all the job piracy between the two states takes place, the two states’ action is truly historic.

The two states made a previous attempt at a binding agreement in 2014-16: Missouri passed a similar law to this year’s in 2014, but Kansas’ last-minute law just before a 2016 deadline in the Missouri law precipitated a stalemate, and no new deal was made until this year.

It should be remembered that an agreement of this type has been advocated for by a number of companies in the region, notably Hallmark and the Hall Family Foundation. Their work uncovered the hundreds of millions of dollars that had gone into the border war and led to pressure being put on both state governments to end the madness.

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Would Trump Try to Manipulate Economic Data Before the Election?

Dean Baker considers whether Trump’s group of supporters would be able to manipulate the bureacracies of the federal government to alter the economic outlook of the nation in a more expansive way than Larry Kudlow and others, but the data itself ( if that is even needed?)  He says not likely, but how creative would one need to be?

Dean Baker wonders out loud…

Would Trump Try to Manipulate Economic Data Before the Election?

I talked to a reporter last week who wanted to know if Donald Trump could manipulate economic data for political advantage. For example, could Trump make the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show a lower rate of unemployment or the Bureau of Economic Analysis show a higher rate of GDP growth, just before the election next fall?

…First, the people at these and other statistical agencies are dedicated professionals.

…Furthermore, since so much of the data are publicly available, it would be very hard to do this without being detected.

…Theoretically, someone could do something like this, but it would have to be a person who was very knowledgeable about the data. And, they would almost certainly need the cooperation of at least 20 or 30 people at the BLS.

 

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August retail sales confirm healthy consumer sector

August retail sales confirm healthy consumer sector

Retail sales are one of my favorite indicators, because in real terms they can tell us so much about the present, near term forecast, and longer term forecast for the economy.

This morning retail sales for August were reported up +0.4%, and July, which was already very good at +0.7%,  was revised upward by another +0.1% as well. Since consumer inflation increased by +0.4% over that two month period, real retail sales have risen +0.7% in the past two months. As a result, YoY real retail sales, which had been faltering earlier this year, are  now up +2.3%.

Here is what the last five years look like:

Others may use other deflators. I use overall CPI because:

 

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