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No: Less Consumption Does Not Cause More Investment

At risk of stating the obvious, in this post I’d like to highlight a pernicious misunderstanding that I find to be widespread out there in the world.

This is not new thinking. You’ll find a more sophisticated historical account, stated very clearly though in somewhat different terms, in the first few pages of this PDF. Still, despite decades of debunking, this misconception remains ubiquitous. I’d like to explain it in the simplest and clearest terms I can.

Start here:

GDP = Consumption Spending + Investment Spending

Consumption Spending = Spending on goods that will be consumed within the period.

Investment Spending = Spending on goods that will endure beyond the period.

Looking back at a period, from an accounting perspective, it’s obvious that if there’s less consumption spending, there’s more investment spending. This must be true, because that’s how we tally things up, once they’ve happened. There are two types of spending; every dollar spent last year must be one or the other. If there’s less of one, there’s more of the other.

But people conclude: if there is less consumption spending, there will be more investment spending. (So we’ll increase our stock of real stuff, and we’ll all be richer!)

They’re confusing (and confuting) a backward-looking, historical, accounting statement with a forward-looking, causal, predictive statement. Because looking back, GDP is fixed. It has to be; it’s already happened! But in that very instant of thought, people abandon that fixed, historical perspective and think: if one component is smaller, the other will be larger.

This makes no sense at all. Think about it: If people spend more on consumption goods next year, that will cause more production — including production of long-lived goods to increase production capacity. Investment won’t go down because people spend more on consumption. GDP will go up. Next year’s GDP (obviously) isn’t fixed.

Likewise, people tend to think that less consumption spending means there will be a higher proportion of investment spending (so, relatively, more real-wealth production). Wrong again. The backward-looking Y = C + I accounting identity tells us exactly nothing about why people will make their spending decisions — what causes them to choose consumption vs. investment spending. They might choose to increase or decrease either or both, for myriad reasons. One doesn’t cause the other in some kind of simple arithmetic manner.

This seems very obvious. But if you hold this firmly in your head as you peruse people’s statements out there in the world, I think that you will find that many of them do not have it fixed very firmly in their heads.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.


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The Villain of Building Energy Efficiency: Triple-Net Leases. Not Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit

An old friend dropped by recently and we had a few beers on the back deck. He runs his family’s commercial real-estate business; they own and operate half a dozen or so pretty large properties (and just bought another) — a mall, office buildings, mixed use.

I was really curious to talk to him about why commercial property owners don’t invest more in energy efficiency. By all accounts there’s great ROI in doing so — serious low-hanging fruit.

Why do commercial property owners leave five-dollar bills lying on the sidewalk?*

At least, it sure looks like there are five-dollar bills lying around. Here from a McKinsey report (PDF; see page 15) showing how much it costs to save (not buy/pay for) a million BTUs of energy, by instead investing in energy efficiency:

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 7.21.01 AM

Sorry, it’s hard to see without going to the PDF. But short story: there are quadrillions of BTUs in efficiency savings available for less than $2 per million BTUs.

Now look at the cost of buying a million BTUs instead, to heat your building or power your plant (2011 figures, Energy Information Administration):

Coal: $2.39/MMBTU
Petroleum: $12.48
Natural Gas: $4.72

This is the cost to a utility company buying these fuels. The meter cost of the electricity produced (after line losses, administration, profits, etc.) — the cost for building owners — will of course be somewhat higher.

So it sure seems like there’s money to be picked up. Why don’t building owners do it? The short answer my friend and I came to? Triple-net leases — the ubiquitous standard in the commercial real-estate industry.

In these leases tenants pay per-square-foot rent, plus their pro-rata share (by square feet) of the building’s 1) taxes, 2) insurance, and 3) repairs, maintenance, and energy expenses. (Many NNN leases don’t include pro-rata energy costs, but tenants are separately metered and either pay directly or through the landlord. There are lots of variations, but landlords rarely pay all energy costs.)

Notice what is not included: the cost of improvements — for instance improvements to increase energy efficiency. So the owner gets all the costs, right up front. And the benefits go mostly or completely to the tenants, in the form of lower energy bills.

“But hey,” I asked my friend, “don’t lower energy costs for tenants mean you can charge more rent? Doesn’t it all come out in the wash?”

“Welllllhh,” he said… Most tenants are on long leases. “We just signed a ten-year lease with the anchor tenant for our mall.” My friend won’t see any dollar benefit from those energy savings for a long time, as leases turn over and are renegotiated. And it’s not at all clear how much benefit he’ll get, because tenants tend to fixate on the square-footage rental rate, which would go up. 

Imagine you’re a leasing agent for the building, trying to rent some space. You’re competing with other buildings that haven’t done the energy upgrade, so their rent/square foot is lower. You’re stuck saying “yeah yeah yeah yeah but you’ll spend less on energy!” This, if you even get the chance: Prospective tentants scanning the listings might never even call you because your rent is so high.

A building owner considering a big spend for energy efficiency really has to think thrice: would I rather have a million dollars, cash in hand, or the likely but uncertain prospect of higher profits somewhere (perhaps way) down the road? It’s easy to understand why they make the choices they do.

And all of this is true even though there’s money lying on the ground waiting to be picked up.

It’s a classic coordination problem — people acting in their own best-guess best interests, with ridiculously inefficient results — that is caused or at least greatly exacerbated by the institutional convention of triple-net leases. (The reasons the convention arose are yet another subject, about passing off risk and retaining returns.)

Obviously triple-net is not the sole villain in this very big picture. From the McKinsey report:

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 8.50.34 AM

Got central planning?

* For those who don’t know the old joke: Two economists walking along, they see a five-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk. One of them gestures for the other to pick it up. “I’m not picking that up,” says the other. “If it were there somebody would have picked it up already!”

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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Key phrase to remember

Lifted from an article in the NYT. In the heat of media debates certain fundamental narratives get lost regarding the tools we use to evaluate policies. Pre-occupation with unemplayment is one of them. While familiar to readers of Angry Bear, it bears reminding ourselves that while ‘economics’ attempts to figure out how the economy works, the heart of our policy and polity can take various forms. This one seemed apt.

…if declines in the unemployment rate are not matched by a rising employment rate.

“We do not want to get to 6.5 percent just by having people pull out of the labor force,” Mr. Rosengren of the Boston Fed said. “We want to get to 6.5 because employment is expanding and we’re adding jobs faster than labor force growth.”

What would an ’employment rate ‘ look like?

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Too big to fail

Reader rjs points us to:

Everyone’s Missing the Bigger Picture in the Reinhart-Rogoff Debate

But whether you believe that the errors in the RR study are fatal or minor, there is a bigger picture that everyone is ignoring. Initially, RR never pushed an austerity-only prescription. As they wrote yesterday: The only way to break this feedback loop is to have dramatic write-downs of debt. Early on in the financial crisis, in a February 2009 Op-Ed, we concluded that “authorities should be prepared to allow financial institutions to be restructured through accelerated bankruptcy, if necessary placing them under temporary receivership.” Significant debt restructurings and write-downs have always been at the core of our proposal for the periphery European Union countries, where it seems to us unlikely that a mix of structural reform and austerity will work. Indeed, the nation’s top economists have said that breaking up the big banks and forcing bondholders to write down debt are essential prerequisites to an economic recovery.


Additionally, economist Steve Keen has shown that “a sustainable level of bank profits appears to be about 1% of GDP”, and that higher bank profits leads to a ponzi economy and a depression. Unless we shrink the financial sector, we will continue to have economic instability.

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Tax increases

Joseph Rosenberg of Tax Policy Center notes that the chained cpi changes taxes for ppeople as well:

Obama Budget Plan Results In ‘Back Door’ Tax Increase For Middle-Class Households: Analysis:

For those looking to put the woes of Tax Day behind them, we have some bad news: It’s probably only going to get worse. President Obama’s budget proposal, released earlier this month, includes a provision that would steadily boost taxes for middle-class households over the next 10 years, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center….Adjustments in income tax brackets are currently tied to the headline inflation measure. By tying the definition of income tax brackets to a different measure of inflation, called the chained consumer price index, Obama’s budget creates a “back door” tax increase, Joseph Rosenberg, a research associate at the Tax Policy Center, told The Huffington Post. With Obama’s budget change, taxpayers would move into higher income tax brackets and face higher tax rates more quickly than they would have before, Rosenberg said. Since growth in real wages tends to outpace inflation, Americans will have to pay more in taxes before their money is worth more.

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Michael Ash and Bob Pollin

Robert Walmann and Kenneth Thomas have traded e=mails with Michael Ash. Michael Ash and Bob Pollin, two economists at PERI, respond to Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in the New York Times:

THE debate over government debt and its relationship to economic growth is at the forefront of policy debates across the industrialized world. The role of the economics profession in shaping the debate has always come under scrutiny.

In particular, attention has focused on the findings of the Harvard economists Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, whose 2009 book, “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly,” received acclaim for its use of hard-to-find historical data to draw conclusions about the origins and nature of financial crises and how long it takes to recover from them.

Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff have published several other papers, including a 2010 academic article, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” It found that economic growth was notably lower when a country’s gross public debt equaled or exceeded 90 percent of its gross domestic product.

Earlier this month, we posted a working paper, co-written with Thomas Herndon, finding fault with this conclusion. We identified a spreadsheet coding error — which Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff promptly acknowledged — that affected their calculations of growth rates for big economies since World War II. We also asserted that the two of them erred by omitting some data and improperly weighting other statistics. In an Op-Ed essay and appendix last week, Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff denied those accusations.

They referred to this debate as an “academic kerfuffle,” but we believe the debate has been constructive, because it has brought greater clarity over the ideas shaping austerity policies in both the United States and Europe

The entire piece can be read here

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