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

Weekly Indicators for March 23 – 27 at Seeking Alpha

Weekly Indicators for March 23 – 27 at Seeking Alpha by New Deal democrat

My Weekly Indicators post is up at Seeking Alpha.

As you might expect, almost all of the “hard” indicators have crashed. What sticks out is that consumer spending, as measured by chain store sales, has not – even though one week ago the coronavirus restrictions were very much in place in many regions.

As usual, clicking over and reading will bring you thoroughly up to date. It also helps reward me for my efforts, especially now that I have cut back on posting there in order to spend a lot of time documenting what is happening and what is likely to happen going forward with the coronavirus pandemic.

Comments (0) | |

Mass testing for Covid-19: economics, politics, and policy options

The Covid-19 epidemic is creating a painful dilemma for policymakers.  On the one hand, we need to practice social distancing to keep people healthy and to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, this strategy is causing a severe economic contraction as people avoid contact with others.

An ideal response to this dilemma would have three basic components.  First, we would implement a hard, nation-wide lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19.  This would “flatten the curve” and save lives by preventing hospitals from being inundated with patients in the next few weeks.  It would also buy time to put in place the testing, prevention, and surveillance measures we will need to start cautiously re-opening our economy.  Putting these measures in place should be the second element of our strategy.  Finally, as Paul Romer and Alan Garber argue, we need a major effort to increase our capacity to test for Covid-19, and to produce masks, gloves, and other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) by an order of magnitude or more.  The ability to do mass testing and to provide masks and other PPE to most Americans will substantially reduce the risk that the epidemic drags on for many months and leads to an economic catastrophe.  (For further discussions, see here, here, and here.)

In this essay I explain why it is important to massively increase our ability to produce Covid-19 tests and PPE.  I also discuss how this can be done, considering the apparent reluctance of the Trump administration to lead this effort.  I make four basic points.

First, the ability to test millions of people daily for Covid-19 and to produce PPE for millions of Americans will require a large up-front capital investment by manufacturers that may turn out to be unneeded, but this investment is socially justified to lessen the risk of a severe and protracted economic shutdown.

Second, without firm contractual commitments from the government, businesses will not invest at the scale required to ensure that we can avoid a disaster.  Several factors will deter adequate investment by industry; the most important is probably the risk that the epidemic will abate and they will not be able to recover their investment costs.  The government can overcome this problem by agreeing to pay companies for tests and PPE even if the epidemic abates, by subsidizing investment in the capacity to produce tests and PPE, etc.  The critical point is that the government needs to make binding commitments NOW, it cannot wait to see if the epidemic can be brought under control using other means.  Valuable time has already been lost.

Third, the powers that the President has under the Defense Production Act to directly control the use of resources are not particularly useful if our goal is to spur investment in the capacity to produce tests and PPE.  We need to give firms incentives to invest in new capacity using contracts, competitions, and similar tools.

Fourth, an ambitious effort to expand production of tests and PPE will inevitably lead to genuine contracting failures and to situations that create the perception of failure.  Trump is clearly anxious to avoid setting ambitious goals and taking actions that might later be used to criticize him.  In response, Congressional Democrats want to force Trump to exercise his powers under the Defense Production Act.

This is a mistake.  Trump would likely veto any bill that tried to force him to act, and, in any event, it is very difficult for Congress to force a reluctant President to act.  Fortunately, there is no need for contracting efforts to be directed by the President.  Rather than trying to force a reluctant Trump to exercise his contracting powers under the DPA, Congress should either delegate the power to an agency, or it should create incentives itself, directly.  I will sketch out how this can be done.  The same point applies to efforts to organize mass testing, the distribution of equipment, and other activities where direct commands are an effective means of achieving our goals:  Congress should accept that Trump is unwilling (and arguably unable) to lead these efforts and try to work around him in ways that he can accept.

Mass testing and distribution of PPE mitigate the risk of economic disaster

Comments (0) | |

A Dog that Didn’t Bark

The USA is about to experience the largest fiscal policy shift since World War II. The House is debating whether to add $ 2,200,000,000,000 to the Federal Budget Deficit (counting loans as if they were expenses because that’s what they do). There appears to be a near consensus as all are speaking in favor. It is just possible to guess which are Republicans

I’m sure there is a similar near consensus that Rep Thomas Masie of Kentucky, who made them fly to DC by threatening to call a quorum, is a jerk (the Rep. is short for reprehensible). I don’t really wonder if someone is going to get knifed in the members only men’s room.

The Supply of Treasury securities is about to experience the largest shock in history. So what is happening to the price in anticipation of the huge supply shock ?

Quick find the shift from arguing about $ 2.5 billion vs 8.5 billion to arguing about $ 100 billion more to discussing $ 1800 billion more to approving $ 2200 billion more on the graph.

The rate is not quite at the all time record low, but it is close. One might argue that a huge Federal Debt will crowd out investment, beause it will create an illusion of wealth which makes people consumer more so the Fed will have to achieve high real interest rates in order to keep the economy from overheating. One can argue that the huge debt will cause high inflation (perhaps because the Federal Government is the world’s main dollar debtor and can make the dollar worth as little as they want) which will imply high nominal interest rates.

But one will not be able to convince investors of this. the invisible bond vigilantes clearly have got their hands on Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

This isn’t even a matter of much debate (except for Massie). It is clear that stimulus will help the USA and also, in particular, the GOP. When the interests of the USA and the GOP allign there is (almost) no debate, because Democrats care about the country and not just about hurting the other party. In 2009 Republicans demonstrated that they were partisans not patriots. Today, Democrats are demonstrating they are patriots more than they are partisans.

Many economists (some winners of the Nobel memorial prize) should admit that they were totally wrong. But of course they won’t.

Some economists whose response to the horrible Trump tax cut was more debt no problem can say “I told you so”

I told you so.

Comments (9) | |

Notes on the economy and coronavirus issues

Notes on the economy and coronavirus issues

As is obvious, I have stopped reporting on almost all incoming economic data, as anything older than last week is out of date. But once the last important February data is reported tomorrow, I will take one last fond look back at our pre- Coronavirus Recession economy. How close to recession was it?

I also want to write a few more detailed posts on several points. But for now, let me leave a quick note about some important issues going forward.

1. The federal government under Donald Trump is NEVER going to do what is necessary to bring this pandemic under control. Success is only going to be achieved by cooperative action by the States.

2. As I forecast, the increasing urgency of the pandemic has put the States under enormous public pressure to take more effective action. Most, especially the “blue” States and some Eastern, Midwestern, and a few Mountain West “red” States have done so. But Southern “red” States in particular continue to resist, and probably will continue to do so until it is too late – although ultimately they too will respond to pressures from their publics.

Comments (15) | |

Rome Update

For 3 days from an abundance of caution, 4 hours a day of online teaching responsibilities and extreme laziness, I have stayed in an apartment usuaally in a bed. Rome is a bit different than was I went into hibernation. There are people walking around without dogs on a leash. Some cars.

There was a guard outside the supermarket absolutely waiting for someone to come out bfore letting someone in. No crowds: no line at cashier. The Deli lady (who I thanked for risking her life to give me 100 g of spek + 100 g of bresaola said it’s a lot more pleasant this way.

Shelves a tiny bit less stocked than usual. The only thing I couldn’t get was garbanzo beans

Comments (5) | |

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

Comments (0) | |

The Oil Price War

The Oil Price War

One consequence of the emerging global Covid-19 recession has been that it has helped push world oil prices down from the $60.77 per barrel range near the beginning of 2020 to $23.12 for West Texas Crude and $29.00 for Brent Crude, levels not seen since the end of 2008. But part of why that decline has been so sharp and deep has been thet Saudi Arabia has increased production while Russia has kept up production, despite the Saudis demanding that they cut production.  So there is an oil price war going on.

Of course this will tend to cushion the recession for oil consumers.  But the US has become a small net oil exporter, and reports have it that a subsidiary reason for the Saudis and Russians getting into this price war has been to tank the US fracking industry in oil and natural gas, which by most reports cannot survive if prices remain as low as they are now.  So while US oil products buyers may be better off, the recession in oil producing parts of the US will be made worse.  It  should be kept in mind that a non-trivial part of the US economic growh in 2017 was a major increase in fracking activity, with half the increase in capital investment coming from that sector alone.  The damage to oil production in the US will probably exceed the benefits from lower prices at the pump in the US.

A curious corollary to this is that the leaders of both Russia and Saudi Arabia have made serious moves to enhance and expand their own power.  In Russia, Putin has moved to change the constitution so that instead of having to step down as president, he can run again twice more, keeping him still in as late as 2036, by which time he will be 84.  This still needs to pass a referendum, but few doubt that it will fail to do so, despite reported declines in Putin’s popularity.

Comments (5) | |

This is what exponential growth looks like: 2,500,000 infected in the next 15 days, 50,000 deaths

This is what exponential growth looks like: 2,500,000 infected in the next 15 days, 50,000 deaths

I had originally planned on limiting this post to the next 10 days. But then the Buffoon-in-Chief tweeted this:

So let’s look at the number of diagnosed infections and deaths in the US by the time Trump gets around to deciding what to do. Bottom line: about 2.5 million *diagnosed* infections, and about 50,000 deaths baked in the cake at a 2% mortality rate, if the current exponential rate of spreading continues.

Let me start by revisiting Jim Bianco’s March 10 graph one last time. At the time he put up the graph, there were 959 diagnosed coronavirus cases in the US:

That’s the information he had to work with. He deduced an exponential growth rate of 34.6% per day. Using that, he projected that over the next 10 days ending March 21, there would be 24,275 diagnosed cases:

Comments (5) | |

The True Owners of Foreign Capital

by Joseph Joyce

The True Owners of Foreign Capital

Explaining the sources and destinations of capital flows is a key focus of research in international finance. But capital flows between countries can flow through financial centers before they arrive at their ultimate destination, and these intermediary flows distort the record of the actual ownership of investments. Two recent papers seek to provide a more accurate picture of the true sources of foreign finance.

Jannick Damgaard of Danmarks Nationalbank, Thomas Elkjaer of the International Monetary Fund and Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen differentiate between “phantom” and “real” foreign direct investment in their 2019 IMF working paper, “What Is Real and What Is Not in the Global FDI Network?”  Phantom FDI flows to shell companies that do not engage in any business activities, and are used to minimize corporate taxation before the funds are channeled to their final destination. Among the host countries that receive a significant amount of phantom investment are the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore and Ireland. The phantom FDI overstates the actual amount of investment that takes place and obfuscates the ultimate ownership of foreign capital.

Damgaard, Elkjar and Johannsen use several sources of data in order to uncover the actual owners of FDI. These include the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, which reports foreign investments in 110 countries by the country of the immediate owner; the OECD’s Foreign Direct Investment Statistics, which differentiates between FDI in Special Purpose Entities (SPEs), a form of shell company, and non-SPE investment, and also includes information on the ultimate owners of investment; and Orbis, a global database of corporate data, including ownership information. Since the OECD data are incomplete, they estimate the share of real FDI in total FDI by using the negative relationship of real FDI/total FDI and total FDI/GDP.

Comments (3) | |

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.

Comments (4) | |