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

The three best arguments against an economic slowdown

by New Deal democrat

The three best arguments against an economic slowdown

I still think I’m right that there will be a worsening economic slowdown that shows up by about summertime and continues towards the end of the year.But there is one long leading indicator and two important short leading indicators that are going the other way. Rather than ignore them, I accept them and explain why I don’t think they negate my forecast. This article is up at Seeking Alpha.

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On a more somber note, Today We Are All Parisians.

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The economy in 2019: a look at the “big picture”

by New Deal democrat

The economy in 2019: a look at the “big picture”

Although I have a bunch of nerdy forecasting models, I view my primary mission as trying to explain what is going on in the economy for ordinary middle and working class American workers and consumers.I’ve been meaning to do a “30,000 foot perspective” on the economy for awhile, to draw together all the information into a Big Picture narrative. Well, I finally got around to it, and it is up at Seeking Alpha. This is something that should be of particular interest to those who have followed me all the way back from my Daily Kos days.

The most overlooked feature of the economy in the past five years has been the way low gas prices have allowed room for the economy – and real wages – to grow without being strangled by high interest rates.

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Is Stephen Moore a Gold Bug?

Is Stephen Moore a Gold Bug?

A lot of the criticisms of putting the twin village idiots known as Herman Cain and Stephen Moore on the FED assert that they are gold bugs. Kate Riga watched CNN when Erin Burnett interviewed Stephen Moore on this allegation:

Stephen Moore tries to flip-flop on the gold standard — but Erin Burnett is prepared and armed with a montage of his past statements

Watch and enjoy! Now Moore did say he would prefer targeting an index of commodity prices, which led me to FRED and its Global Price Index of All Commodities. Moore has not be all that specific how his commodity price target would work but let’s speculate his index would be a lot like this one. Suppose the FED targeted commodity prices to be where they were in 2005 since this index is based where it would equal 100 in 2005. Just imagine how a Moore monetary policy would have worked say during the booming 1990’s. Commodity prices were low so his policy prescription would have been massively expansionary during a booming economy. For much of the period from 2007 to 2014, we would have had a contractionary monetary policy even as U.S. aggregate demand was often incredibly weak. In other words, his commodity price based monetary policy would be about as destabilizing as was monetary policy under the gold standard.

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Economics, the Realm of Money and the Significance of GDP Growth, with an Application to Child Labor

Economics, the Realm of Money and the Significance of GDP Growth, with an Application to Child Labor

What’s economics?  There are two answers.  One is it’s the sphere of human activity encompassing the production and distribution of goods and services, which has sometimes been referred to as provisioning.  This is quite a lot but not everything.  It includes meditation classes but not meditation, making and selling binoculars but not bird-watching, etc.  The problem is that it includes so much of human life that it is barely a delineation at all.  From this perspective farming is part of the economy, and so is shopping for food, cooking the food at home, and even piling some of it on your plate.  It’s a matter of debate whether eating the food should qualify as economic, not to mention the trip to the toilet sometime later.  (I think the answer should be yes to the toilet part.)

Then there’s a much narrower conception that confines itself to just the money economy, things that are produced for sale, paid labor, and money congealed into financial assets and obligations.  This is largely what mainstream economics is about, although it claims to be about human well-being in a much more encompassing sense, using welfarism as a bridge between the empirical world of markets and the putative substrate of “utility”.

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February JOLTS: a mirror of the poor jobs report

February JOLTS: a mirror of the poor jobs report

The JOLTS report on labor is noteworthy and helpful because it breaks down the jobs market into a more granular look at hiring, firing, and voluntary quits. Its drawback is that the data only goes back less than 20 years, so from the point of view of looking at the economic cycle, it has to be taken with a large dose of salt.
With that disclaimer out of the way, Tuesday’s JOLTS report for February generally mirrored the poor jobs report (+20,000, revised to +33,000) for that month. With the exception of one new high, the other series are off their best levels, and two continued to decline:

  • Quits declined -0.1% from their peak of one month ago.
  • Hires declined and are -3% off their October peak.
  • Total separations rose slightly but remain about -2% off their peak in last July.
  • Job openings declined about -7% from their October all time high, which was virtually tied one month ago. While this is a sharp decline, it has typically happened once or twice a year in this series even during expansions.
  • Layoffs and Discharges rose slightly and remain about 9% higher than their September 2016 low, although well below their levels of most of the past 18 months.

Let’s update where the report might tell us we are in the cycle.
First, below is a graph, averaged quarterly through the fourth quarter, of the *rates* of hiring, quits, layoffs, and openings as a percentage of the labor force since the inception of the series (layoffs and discharges are inverted at the 3% level, so that higher readings show fewer layoffs than normal, and lower readings show more):

 

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Elizabeth Warren Wants to Collect More in Corporate Profits Taxes

Elizabeth Warren Wants to Collect More in Corporate Profits Taxes

John Harwood reports:

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposes raising $1 trillion in government revenue from a new tax on profits of the largest corporations. The proposed surtax would prevent Amazon and other companies with profits exceeding $100 million from wiping out their tax liabilities altogether. Instead of taxable corporate income as defined by the IRS, the 7% surtax would apply to profits companies report to their investors.

A lot to like. Look – I hated that 2017 tax scam, which we were told would clean up how corporations are allowed to shield income by all sorts of tricks including transfer pricing manipulation. Alas, its complexity was a boondoggle for shifty tax attorneys rather than simplification and closing loopholes. So proposals to “repeal and replace” this awful tax deform are highly welcomed. But this part of Harwood’s reporting was dreadful:

Warren cited two high-profile examples: Amazon has reported $10 billion in 2018 profits but zero in U.S. corporate taxes; Occidental Petroleum has reported $4.1 billion in profits and also paid zero.

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Real wages got gassed in March

Real wages got gassed in March

The consumer price index rose +0.4% in March, mainly as a result of a big monthly increase in gas prices. That really shouldn’t have been a surprise, since almost every time gas prices have increased by as much as they did in March — up 9% for the month — consumer prices as a whole have gone up at least +0.4%. I’m showing just the last 10 years in the graph below:

In fact, ex-gas, consumer inflation ex-energy has been remarkably stable between 1.5% and 2.5% YoY ever since gas prices made their long term bottom in early 1999. The only big exceptions were in the year before each of the last two recessions:

 

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Downturn in manufacturing new orders adds to evidence of slowdown

Downturn in manufacturing new orders adds to evidence of slowdown

I don’t normally pay much attention to the new factory orders report, because it is simply too noisy to be of much use. But as of February’s report, released Monday and showing a -0.1% decline in “core” new orders, there is enough to at least take notice.

Here are overall new factory orders (blue, left scale) and “core” new orders (red, right scale) for the past 25 years:

In the first place, while they clearly turned down in advance of the 2001 recession, which was a producer-led recession, that wasn’t the case at all, especially for “core” new orders, in the 2008 recession, which was consumer-led. Further, there is so much monthly noise that monthly readings don’t give you reliable signal until the turn is well underway.

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2019 Core CPI

In a low inflation world firms tend to raise prices once a year, typically in the first quarter of the calendar year or their fiscal year.   Because of this very strong seasonal pattern, on a not seasonally adjusted  around 50% of the annual increase in the core CPI —  excluding food and energy — occurs in the first quarter

This very strong pattern gives great insight in to the annual inflation rate. One, is if this year’s first quarter is greater than or less that the prior year’s first quarter, this year’s annual increase will be greater of less than the prior year’s annual increase. This has worked every since year since 1990. Second, just doubling the NSA first quarter rate gives you an amazingly accurate estimate of the annual increase in  the core CPI for that year. In 2018 the first quarter rose 1.20% and the annual increase was 2.16%.  This year the first quarter rose 1.06%.  This implies that the rise in the core CPI should be slightly less in  2019 than  it as in 2018.

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Does Cochrane Really Understand the Latest on Minimum Wages?

Does Cochrane Really Understand the Latest on Minimum Wages?

John Cochrane thinks we liberals who think higher minimum wages can do some good by offsetting monopsony power fail to grasp labor economics. He is citing some work by Jeffrey Clemens, Lisa B. Kahn, and Jonathan Meer. Alas his blog post screwed up the link to this interesting paper:

Compensation consists of a combination of cash and non-cash attributes, and depends on worker productivity. We also allow for the possibility of a bargaining wedge whereby the firm pays less in total compensation (cash and non-cash benefits) than a worker’s marginal product. When the minimum wage rises above the prevailing wage (cash payment) but below a worker’s marginal product, the firm will shift the mix of compensation towards cash and away from non-cash benefits, but will still find it worthwhile to employ the worker. This distortion can create losses to worker welfare which, if large enough, will push workers to prefer their outside option of nonwork. We also show that, in the presence of a bargaining wedge, the welfare effects of minimum wage increases are non-monotonic. In general, wage gains associated with increases in worker bargaining power will tend to improve welfare, while wage gains that are accommodated through reductions in non-cash benefits can reduce welfare.

In many ways, this dates to a 1980 paper by Walter Wessels (“The effect of minimum wages in the presence of fringe benefits: An expanded model,” Economic Inquiry), which the authors cite. Wessels assumed a perfectly competitive model where government interference lowered worker total compensation. Wessels published later papers, which alas the authors did not cite. In 1994, the Journal of Labor Research presented an extension of Wessels thinking that incorporated monopsony power entitled “Minimum wages and the wessels effect in a monopsony model” by J. Harold McClure:

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