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The sources of the next recession

The sources of the next recession

While we are waiting for the ISM May manufacturing survey and construction spending data to be released later this morning, both of which will give us important clues to Friday’s jobs report, let me write down some thoughts on the nerdy question I ruminated about this weekend: what is the most likely source of the next recession?

I should start by noting that I remain on “recession watch” for later this year, as in, a substantially heightened risk, due to enough of the long leading indicators turning negative by the end of last year. But my base case remains that there will be a slowdown without an actual recession, because those indicators haven’t gone down *enough* and some, like real M1 and some housing metrics, have already rebounded.

But I read a tweet over the weekend from a political source I respect, who essentially said, “housing’s fine, there will be no recession, end of story,” and, well, I was annoyed.

That’s because housing isn’t always the source of a recession, and occasionally, as in 2000-01, it doesn’t turn down very much at all. In fact, housing has turned down since the beginning of last year about as much as it turned down in 2000 – which didn’t prevent the 2001 recession, did it?

So what are other sources of recessions? Here’s my take:


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A Tariff Laffer Curve?

A Tariff Laffer Curve?

Douglas Irwin is a very good economist. Let’s highlight his Historical Perspectives on U.S. Trade Policy:

The Civil War marked the beginning of a long period of high U.S. tariffs. These tariffs served the dual purpose of raising revenue for the federal government and keeping out foreign goods, ostensibly for the protection of U.S. labor and business. After the war, tariffs (which generated roughly half of government revenue) remained high to service the enormous debt burden that resulted from the war. Yet by the mid-1880s a curious problem had arisen: though much of the debt had been paid off, federal revenues were outstripping expenditures by as much as 50 percent. Republican and Democratic politicians agreed that the fiscal surplus should be reduced, but they proposed exactly the opposite policies for achieving this objective. Democrats advocated cutting tariff rates in an effort to reduce revenue. Arguing that this would simply encourage imports and raise even more revenue, Republicans proposed higher tariff rates to reduce fiscal revenue. This debate over the tariff “Laffer curve” essentially hinged on whether existing tariffs were above or below the revenue-maximizing rate, which in turn depended on the height of the tariff and the price elasticity of import demand.

Irwin examined this issue in his Higher Tariffs, Lower Revenues? Analyzing the Fiscal Aspects of the “Great Tariff Debate of 1888”:

This paper examines this debate and attempts to determine the revenue effects of the proposed tariff changes. The results indicate that the tariff and the price elasticity of U.S. import demand during the 1880s below the maximum revenue rate, and therefore a tariff reduction would have reduce customs revenue.

Irwin also contrasts the other policy agendas of the two parties.

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Kenneth Thomas in WSJ

Kenneth Thomas (an AB contributor) was quoted April 7  in the Journal a second time on the general question of how to solve the problem of subsidy bidding wars.  Unfortunately it is behind a paywall…but worth pointing to…

Opinion | Pass a Law to Combat Rent-Seeking

Congress could invoke the Commerce Clause to limit destructive competition over corporate subsidies.

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Trump’s Latest Mexican Tariff Tirade Irks Senator Grassley

Trump’s Latest Mexican Tariff Tirade Irks Senator Grassley

Senator Grassley rebukes the latest idiocy from the White House:

President Trump dropped a trade war bomb on Thursday when he announced his intent to put in place new and harsh tariffs on goods from Mexico until the “illegal Immigration problem is remedied.” And among the many worried, negative reactions was one from Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, in a strongly worded statement. “Trade policy and border security are separate issues. This is a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent,” the statement begins. “Following through on this threat would seriously jeopardize passage USMCA, a central campaign pledge of President Trump’s and what could be a big victory for the country.” Putting this in the context of harming Trump’s own signature USMCA (the replacement for NAFTA) is a smart frame, an effort to show that the tariffs are in conflict with the administration’s own trade goals.

First Tramp thinks NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever but NAFTA 1.1 is beautiful. But now Trump wants to start a new trade war with Mexico because he did not get his racist wall? OK! Of course Trump is not the only one with a twitter account and Paul Krugman has joined Senator Grassley with lines like:

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Will China Play The Rare Earth Card In The Trade War?

Will China Play The Rare Earth Card In The Trade War?

The rumor that China might play its “rare earth card” was the rumor today that helped push down both stock and oil markets according to a variety of reports.  The trigger for this seems to have been a visit on May 26 by China’s president, Xi  Jinping, to a rare earth facility, along with some rumbling statements associated with that visit.  They may not do it, but the possibility of blocking exports to the US of exports of rare earth metals shows that China has potential weapons if Trump follows through with more vigorous trade barriers.  How serious is this threat?

It is probably not as serious as it might  have been a decade ago.  In 1990 a solid majority of these critical elements were produced outside  of China, with the US being a major source, particularly California.  But production here and in some other nations such as Australia was reduced substantially as mining of many of these involves substantial environmental damage.  At the same time China entered the opening and expanded production, getting to be the source of about 90 percent of all production by 2010.  However, due to events then increased efforts to increase production of them elsewhere, especially Malaysia, Australia, and South Africa, has reduced this to 70 percent.

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Conservative Economists Discover the Baumol Cost Disease

Conservative Economists Discover the Baumol Cost Disease

A little over a year ago Mark Perry wrote this nonsense:

The chart above (thanks to Olivier Ballou) is an update of a chart we produced last year about this time, and shows the percent changes since January 1997 in the prices of selected consumer goods and services, along with the increase in average hourly earnings in this version … Blue lines = prices subject to free market forces. Red lines = prices subject to regulatory capture by government. Food and drink is debatable either way. Conclusion: remind me why socialism is so great again.

To which I reminded him of the Baumol cost disease and followed up with this. It is good to see that Alex Tabarrok has been thinking about this issue as has John Cochrane. Read their posts as there is a lot of great discussion but permit me to cite just this:

I assumed that regulation, bloat and bureaucracy, monopoly power and the Baumol effect would each explain some of what is going on. After looking at this in depth, however, my conclusion is that it’s almost all Baumol effect.

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Emoluments As Grounds For Impeachment

Emoluments As Grounds For Impeachment

I have said this before, but am saying it again.  The clearest grounds for impeaching Donald Trump are not his obstruction of justice on which so much attention is being focused, but in my view his blatant and unequivocal acceptance of emoluments from foreign governments, with this most clearly evident at his hotel in Washington, with these emoluments the basis of lawsuits by the governments of Maryland and D.C. going forward slowly.  But somehow none  in Congress pushing impeachment have raised this issue as grounds for impeachment, even though this is something expressly forbidden in the Constitution of presidents.  What clearer grounds for impeaching a president could there be?

I think there are four interrelated reasons we have not seen much discussion of this matter.  One is that there has been so much focus on the Mueller Report, which focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the relation of the Trump campaign with that. While Mueller failed to find sufficient evidence of conspiracy, the door was left open for possible obstruction of justice, even though A.G. Barr has vigorously tried to slam it shut.  And then we have seen Trump apparently doing more of it as he tries to get his whole administration ignoring Congressional subpoenas.

Another reason for this focus is that charges on this were key in the move  to impeach President Nixon, with him being forced to resign as fellow Republicans made it clear they would support the move to impeach on these grounds.  Needless to say, today, with the  exception of Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, no Republicans are supporting the move to impeach, a major  reason Speaker Pelosi continues to resist opening a formal impeachment inquiry, even as the pressure to do so rises.

A third reason is that Mueller apparently accepted the demand by Trump to recognize a “red line” around his personal finances.  Those are now increasingly coming under investigation, and we are beginning to see some of his tax returns. But an impeachable focus out of what may come has not fully come into  view, although possible money laundering of Russian oligarch money through Deutsche Bank is widely thought to have occurred and may soon be exposed. But is that impeachable as it all happened before Trump became president?

Which brings us to the fourth reason, we have never had a president ever in the 232 years since George Washington took his oath of office who has even remotely been suggested to have violated this very clear rule stated in the Constitution, not a poor one (and we have had a few not rich, if not outright indigent) nor a rich one.  None of them, until at least now.  We have not been able to think about this.

But now it is here, if partially buried in all the carryings on about so many other matters, especially this matter of obstruction of justice.  But here we have a president for the first time ever clearly taking money from foreigners while in office, and in the case of the Saudis in particular, who have dumped piles of money into the Trump Hotel in Washington, acted in ways the Foreign emolumenter wants, arguably against the interests of the US.  Did we need to have “Bone Saw” MBS take power in a coup supported by Trump and Kushner?  Should we be rushing to war with Iran at their behest?  Should we be continuing to arm them for their brutal war in Yemen?

I would like to see at least one of the people either running for president or stomping about in the Congress demanding impeachment bring this up.  This is a far clearer violation of the Constituton than anything else Trump has done.  This is exactly why the Founding Fathers both put the emoluments clause into the Constitution and gave Congress the power to impeach presidents.  If there is a “high crime and misdemeanor” the Founding Fathers would have had in mind when they did all this, is not violating the emoluments clause at the very top of the list?  Out with the crooked bumb!

Barkley Rosser

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Yes, Virginia, the government shutdown really did cause a mini-recession

Yes, Virginia, the government shutdown really did cause a mini-recession

For the past several months, I have been pounding on the idea that the government shutdown, during which 800,000 jobholders were temporarily laid off without pay, had a much bigger impact on the economy than was originally thought.

This morning we get the following graph from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which speaks for itself:

 One of the most important insights from behavioral economics is that losses have an outsized effect on behavior compared to gains, usually on the order of 2 to 1. In the case of the government shutdown, about 0.5% of the workforce went without pay for about 45 days. Using the 2:1 ratio, that would translate into a -1% deadweight loss to the economy during that time.

Of course, the workers got back pay when the government reopened – but if the 2:1 ratio holds, there wouldn’t be an equivalent “kick” from renewed spending. Which seems to have been the case, since the March +1.3% rebound in real retail sales didn’t make up for the -1.6% decline in December.

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San Francisco Fed: ease of finding a new job is driving improved labor force participation

San Francisco Fed: ease of finding a new job is driving improved labor force participation

This is a surprising result that is worth noting: the San Francisco Fed found that the increase in prime age labor force participation in the past five years has not been due to new people being drawn into the labor force, but rather by a very large decrease in people leaving it:

[Note: keep in mind that prior to the early 1990s, both inflows and outflows are increasing due to the secular trend of women entering the workforce.]

Why is this surprising? Because you would think that increased wages would draw people on the sidelines into the workforce. This is something I’ve looked at a few times in the past several years, and the pattern has been clear:

1. The unemployment rate declines

2. Once the unemployment rate declines enough, the decline in labor force participation decelerates, but nevertheless continues.

3. Average hourly wage growth starts to improve.

4. Labor force participation starts to increase.

Here’s a graph showing this relationship since 1994:

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