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Consumer prices sharply decline in March: keep your eye on wages

Consumer prices sharply decline in March: keep your eye on wages

 

This morning we got some monthly economic data that will be actually valuable to watch throughout this Coronavirus Recession: consumer prices. That’s because during recessions, consumer price growth decelerates, as does wage growth, which continues to decelerate well after the recession bottoms out.

Since monthly changes in inflation are closely correlated with the gas prices, let’s start by comparing the two:

Figyre one

Gas prices declined -8.5% during March. Unsurprisingly, consumer prices followed suit, declining by -0.4%.

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The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Covid-19 pandemic won’t last forever, and at some point we will have to return to figuring out how to respond to the climate crisis.  (What a depressing opening line.  No, I have no desire to live in a world of permanent crisis.)  Is the answer a Green New Deal?  Challenge has just published my analysis of this; you can find the link here.

Abstract: The Green New Deal, an attractive agenda of increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, is not remotely sufficient to stabilize global warming at a non-catastrophic level. Such a policy needs to be accompanied by direct measures to curtail the use of fossil fuels, although this may complicate the intended messaging.

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Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing Part II

Remdesivir and Transfer Pricing Part II

Now that I sketched out the transfer pricing for Gilead Sciences with respect to their successful HIV and Hep C products (as much as I can say based on publicly available information), it is time to speculate a bit on how Remdesivir may play out. There is a lot we do not know including whether this treatment receives regulatory approval and how it will be priced if it does. Note for example this story:

More than 150 organisations and individuals on Monday urged US biotechnology firm Gilead not to enforce exclusivity over a drug that might be used to treat COVID-19 patients. In an open letter, 145 non-governmental organisations, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Oxfam, and 12 individuals claimed Gilead Sciences held primary patents of remdesivir in more than 70 countries. That meant they could block generic development of the drug until 2031. The open letter to Gilead chief executive Daniel O’Day was circulated by MSF. “We write to request that Gilead take immediate actions to ensure rapid availability, affordability and accessibility of its experimental therapy remdesivir for the treatment of COVID-19, pending the results of the clinical trials demonstrating its efficacy,” it said.

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The D Word

The D Word

Yes, depression, and not the psychological type, although the economic type leads to the psychological type, whether ot not it is the other  way around (see Keynes’ “animal spirits).

I often make fun of Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post, but in Washington Post today he raised the possibility that we are going into a depression, not just a bad recession.  On TV this evening I heard Austen Goolsby throw it out as well.  I suspect we are going to hear it a lot more.

The problem is not just that we have seen the highest increase in joblessness ever, but the increasing prospect that there will not be a quick recovery once the virus is under control. This is partly due to the global nature of this pandemic and the economic decline that has come with it.

A sign of what may be coming is what is going on in China.  The virus seems to be under control, despite some doubts about their numbers and new cases happening due to people arriving there.  But they have been to get their economy started up again, even in Wuhan. Supposedly 98% of firms have restarted.  But there are problems.  One is that many such places are missing crucial workers still under quarantine somewhere  or other.  Then there is the other side of this, the demand side.  China expects to sell goods through exports, but other countries are not buying.  And also domestic consumers are not buying either out of fear and low income.  Apparently there are factories running machines and using power even though they are not producing anything just to please the government that is making these claims of 98% of firms operating, but this seems to be an exaggeration.

Clearly at least on the demand side getting money to people and businesses through easy credit and a large fiscal stimulus are the obvious things to try to avoud this D outcome.  But Samuelson fears that they may be insufficient to this current situation, with no obvious alternative.  I fear he might be right on this one

Barkley Rosser

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The Mankiw CV Plan

The Mankiw CV Plan

Greg Mankiw has posted a suggestion for delivering money to people that targets the benefit to those who need it the most.  The idea is clever:

1. Pay people the benefit B.  (This could be spread over many weeks or months.)  Everyone gets the same B.

2. Next year at tax time, compute the ratio r Y(2020)/Y(2019), the ratio of each filer’s 2020 income, net of B, to their 2019 income and capped at 1.  Impose a surcharge of rB on tax liability.  This way people would pay back a proportion of B based on how much they needed it.  If their 2020 income was greater than or equal to 2019, r = 1 and they would repay B in its entirety.  If their 2020 income was zero, r = 0 and there is no surcharge.  (And no tax at all for that matter.)  Partial income losses would lie in between.

Clever and well-intended, but there are problems.

First, what’s income?  Does it include capital gains and losses?  If so, everyone who has a substantial chunk of financial assets will be able to claim zero income in 2020.  What about business losses?  Clearly, if income is defined expansively, as it should be for tax purposes, those who derive income from capital will come out ahead of those who rely on labor.

Second, how will repayment work?  For low to moderate income people who keep their jobs, tax liability for 2020 may be immense—a large proportion of their annual income.  Yes, if such people save all their B they can just apply it to next year’s payment, but how likely is that?  In practical terms, if the country is facing a wave of enforcement actions and bankruptcies a year from now, the repayment mechanism is likely to be abandoned.

Third, what are the incentives?  Mankiw predictably worries about labor supply, but I think the bigger problem is the immense incentive to work off the books.  Instead of saving only your fractional tax rate when you transact in cash, now you will add the savings on your surcharge.  No one who can escape official scrutiny will report any payments or receipts.  If your goal was to drive as much of the economy underground as quickly as possible, you would have succeeded.

I appreciate Mankiw’s attempt to tie provision of government support to the level of need.  One of the virtues of universal, untargeted social insurance, however, is that it requires a smaller enforcement apparatus and doesn’t turn people who play by the rules into suckers.

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Coronavirus dashboard for March 26: southern “red” States resist effective measures

Coronavirus dashboard for March 26: southern “red” States resist effective measures

Here is the update through yesterday (March 25)

In order to succeed in containing the pandemic, I believe that the US needs at least 2 weeks of China (nearly complete lockdown) followed by at least a month of South Korea (very aggressive and widespread testing).

At minimum, that means at least 50% of the US population under lockdown and a ratio of 15:1 in tests to results showing infection. The recent exponential growth of about 35% per day must be stopped. Those three most important metrics are starred (***) below.

Yesterday we crossed two out of three of those thresholds – just over 50% of the population is under lockdown or near lockdown, and the rate of increase in new infections decelerated substantially. The amount of testing continues to fall are short of what is necessary.

Number and rate of increase of Reported Infections (from Johns Hopkins via arcgis.com)

  • Number: up +13,972 to 69,197 (vs. +11,705 on March 25)
  • ***Rate of increase: day/day: 25% (vs. 34.6% baseline and vs. 19% on March 24)
I am using Jim Bianco’s excellent exponential projection of 34.5% growth from March 10 as my baseline. It appears that “social distancing” strategies as well as State-mandated partial and total lockdowns may have begun to put a dent in this, as yesterday’s +25% and Tuesday’s+19% have been 2 of the 3 lowest rates of increase in the past two+ weeks.

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Congress and the Fed Could Ensure Universal Protection During the Pandemic

Congress and the Fed Could Ensure Universal Protection During the Pandemic

No matter how well or poorly the federal government addresses the overall economic crisis, millions of vulnerable people will be left unprotected.  Homeless people, incarcerated people, immigrants, people in fringe, off-the-books employment like day labor—unless steps are taken that specifically target them, they are staring into the abyss.

This is fundamentally a local problem.  States, counties and cities know where the needs are.  They have existing ties through social service agencies and their connections to nonprofits.  This is where the expertise lies, but their budgets, lean in good times, are in free-fall right now.

The solution is straightforward.  Congress should authorize the Federal Reserve to purchase specially designated state and municipal bonds floated for the specific purpose of serving the health, housing, food and other essential needs of vulnerable populations.  There should be no limit to the amount that can be borrowed.  And the Fed should purchase these bonds with the intention  of retiring them.  Effectively, the Fed would be using its money-creating power to finance social protection at the local level.

This facility can be created immediately, with auditing to follow when practicable.  There should be no delay in meeting the urgent human needs that will otherwise go unaddressed by more conventional policies.

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AFL-CIO has a Plan

AFL-CIO has a Plan

From the AFL-CIO website:

PRIORITIES OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT TO ADDRESS THE CORONAVIRUS:

PROTECT FRONT-LINE WORKERS
  • Streamline approaches for allocating and distributing personal protective equipment to working people in greatest need.
  • Issue a workplace safety standard to protect front-line workers and other at-risk workers from infectious diseases.
  • Provide workplace controls, protocols, training and personal protective equipment.
  • Provide clear, protective federal guidance for different groups of workers with different needs.
  • Increase funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration for additional inspectors and health specialists, and for developing and implementing an infectious disease standard.
MITIGATE THE BROADER PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

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For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

Incomes are collapsing throughout the economy, and both businesses and individuals face a crisis in meeting fixed payments they can’t control.  The most direct step we can take is to temporarily suspend these payment obligations.

Suppose the government were to announce that, starting immediately, all stipulated debt and real estate rental payments were to be suspended for all borrowers and renters.  This moratorium could have an ending date of, say, two months in the future, with the option of extending it if circumstances require.  No interest would accrue to any of these obligations; in effect, we would be stopping the clock on them for a period of time.

Of course, if nothing else were done this would shut down the credit and rental systems completely for the duration of the moratorium, so a stipulation would have to be added that it applies only to debt or rental obligations established at the time of the announcement.  We’d all have to keep two sets of books, one for pre-announcement loans and rentals, the other for post.

International obligations are somewhat more complicated, but the economic heft of the US is great enough that these conditions could probably be imposed unilaterally on foreign counterparties, especially if the logic of this step persuaded other countries to adopt a similar course of action.

A debt moratorium would dampen some channels of financial instability and provide greater security for most participants in the economy.  By itself, however, it would not address the gaping hole in the real economy caused by shutting down whole sectors of goods and services production.  That requires other forms of stimulus.

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Coronavirus dashboard for March 22

Coronavirus dashboard for March 22

This is a new daily or nearly daily update I hope to post, including the most important metrics to show how controlled – or out of control – the cononavirus pandemic is. Hopefully the numbers will move ever closer to the tipping point where the epidemic is under control.In order to bring this pandemic under control, and prevent both health and economic catastrophes, in my opinion the US needs 2 weeks of China (total lockdown, preventing community spread) followed by 1 month of South Korea (extremely aggressive testing). The metric to be watched for testing is a ratio of 15 tests administered for every infection found (the ratio at which South Korea turned the corner).

Here is the update through yesterday (March 21)

Number and rate of increase of Reported Infections (from Johns Hopkins via arcgis.com)

  • Number: up +7,123 to 26,747 (vs. +5,374 on March 21)
  • Rate of increase: day/day: 36% (vs. 34.6% baseline exponential average per Jim Bianco) (and vs. 38% on March 21)

Jim Bianco’s excellent exponential projection from March 10, of a daily 34.5% growth in reported infections for the next 10 days has been almost exactly correct. I am using this as a baseline against which we can tell how well “social distancing” strategies are working as well as State-mandated partial and total lockdowns.

In the last five days, the rate of exponential growth has actually risen from about 28% to 40% and even 50%, probably due to increased testing being able to uncover more infections.

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