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

Industrial production tanks on GM strikes; Real retail sales decline slightly

Industrial production tanks on GM strikes; Real retail sales decline slightly

First, let me briefly address industrial production, which fell -0.8% in October. On its face this is an awful number. But take it with a big grain of salt: mainly it reflected the GM  strike.

Here’s the applicable note from the Federal Reserve:

Manufacturing output fell 0.6 percent in October to a level 1.5 percent lower than its year-earlier reading. In October, the strike in the motor vehicle industry contributed to a drop of 1.2 percent for durables. Excluding motor vehicles and parts, the output of durables moved down 0.2 percent…. The production of nondurables was unchanged…. The output of other manufacturing (publishing and logging) fell 1.0 percent.

Even without the GM strike, the number would have been negative. But not nearly as negative as it was. For the record, both utilities and mining (including oil production) were also down substantially, but these tend to be volatile.

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Is Venezuela Stabilizing?

Is Venezuela Stabilizing?

Maybe.

It looks the inflation rate in Venezuela maxed  out in January at an annuualized rate of 192,000 % , whiich fell by September to 4,600% rate, still in hyperinflationary teritoryy, but  clearly coming down substantially.  I am not  a fan of this regime and never was, unlike some prominent economists saying nice t8ings about their economic performance, especially back in 2007, just before  the  world crash, when indeed their  numbers  looked prtty good.  But, not more recently unfortunately.  But maybe they are slowly returning to a more functional economy now, with still a long way to go.

There are also reports that oil production in Venezuela has recently risen.  Reportedly some of the recent possible stabilization in Venezuela may reflect influence of Russian advisers.

Barkley  Rosser

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Initial claims continue to show slowdown, but no imminent recession

Initial claims continue to show slowdown, but no imminent recession

I’ve been monitoring initial jobless claims closely for the past several months, to see if there are any signs of a slowdown turning into something worse. Simply put, no recession is going to begin unless and until layoffs increase.

My two thresholds are:

1. If the four week average on claims is more than 10% above its expansion low.
2. If the YoY% change in the monthly average turns higher.

As of this week, initial claims continue to be very close to their expansion lows. The 4 week moving average of claims Is 217,000, only 7.7% above the lowest reading of this expansion:

On a YoY% change basis, the 4 week average is -1.0% below its level one year ago:

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A simple Hayekian test for conservatives

(Dan here…Eric will be posting some of his work.  He has read many econ blogs but has not published in the econ blogosphere.  He is experienced otherwise…welcome  Eric.)

Bio for Eric Kramer

I am an economist and lawyer by training and I am currently writing a book on political economy and the role of government.  The book defends the liberal idea that government should actively regulate markets to promote efficiency and to ensure that opportunity and prosperity are widely shared against the leading arguments for limited government, especially the consequentialist arguments of Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan and their intellectual heirs.  Prior to starting work on the book, I was a finance and strategy executive for The Plymouth Rock Companies for many years.

 

by Eric Kramer

 

A simple Hayekian test for conservatives

Hayek believed that non-economists are frequently dissatisfied with the hardships, risks, and inequities created by capitalism, and that they frequently support harmful government regulation of markets because they do not know how markets work.  As Hayek recognized, this puts economists in a difficult political position.  Successful persuasion requires a perception of common values, but when economists argue against popular, common-sense efforts to address the perceived hardships and inequities of unregulated capitalism, they risk being dismissed as apologists for the wealthy or as ideological extremists.

Hayek was sensitive to the political challenges he faced as an advocate for lightly regulated capitalism.  He famously emphasized – and arguably exaggerated – the values he shared with his socialist opponents.  He recognized that economists cannot simply urge people to reject bad policy proposals, that they needed to offer constructive solutions to the problems created by capitalism.  To be sure, Hayek sometimes does lapse into harsh criticism of egalitarians and a rigid rejection of welfare state capitalism, but at other times I believe he endorsed a larger role for government than he personally approved of to preserve his own credibility.

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“Are Robots Stealing Your Job?” is the Wrong Question

Andrew Yang says, “Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job” in an op-ed at the New York Times. Paul Krugman thinks they’re not and advises, “Democrats, Avoid the Robot Rabbit Hole.” This is, of course, a classic case of asking the wrong question.

The real question is: will robots burn down your house and kill your grandchildren? Let’s imagine that all those self-driving trucks and the computers needed to guide them will run on electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Will the robots in the truck factories and the robots in the computer factories also run on wind and sunshine? How about the robots in the wind turbine factories and the solar panel factories and so one ad infinitum? I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…

Let’s assume that it is feasible to phase out all current fossil fuel consumption by 2050 and replace it with renewable, zero-carbon energy. Does that mean it is equally feasible to provide the additional energy needed to run all those job-stealing robots? Or to put the question in proper context, would it be feasible to do it without an uncorruptable, omniscient global central planning authority?

The hitch in all this robot speculation is a little paradox known as Jevons paradox conjoined at the hip, so to speak, with it’s counterpart, “Say’s Law.” The former paradox says that greater fuel efficiency leads to more fuel consumption, the latter paradox tells us that labor-saving machines create more jobs than they destroy. Here are two inseparable positive feedback loops that together generate an incongruous outcome. “Yes the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” Or lots of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or a monthly $1,000 payment to every adult “so that we can build a trickle-up economy,” Choose your poison.

There is, they say, “a certain quantity of work to be done.” Who says that? Good question. In the beginning, it was the political economists — even proto political economists — who said it. But around 1870 economists realized that the maxim conflicted with other things they had in mind so instead of professing it they began to condemn it and to attribute the idea to others — to Luddites, Malthusians or Lump-of-Laborers. The idea that a people could always do more work was just too great a temptation. In principle, the amount of work that could be done is infinite! The robots will not replace us! The robots will not replace us!

What this job-stealing robot debate is really all about is an economics version of theodicy. “Why does evil exist if God, the creator, is omnipotent, omniscient and good?” This theological question is echoed in the puzzle about poverty in the midst of plenty and in Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees,” where private vices promote public virtues. If it seems like robots are stealing your job, have faith, all is for some ultimate purpose in this best of all possible worlds, as Candide’s tutor Dr. Pangloss would assure him.

Taking the Panglossian philosophy into account, it becomes clear that both Andrew Yang and Paul Krugman are on the same page. They are just reading different paragraphs. Although they disagree on what the solution is, they agree that there is a solution and it doesn’t really require a fundamental change in the way we think about limits to the “certain quantity of work to be done.”

 

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Ukraine Corruption and Transfer Pricing

Ukraine Corruption and Transfer Pricing

As I listened to the testimony of Bill Taylor and George Kent, I was also reading up on some South African transfer pricing case involving iron ore:

Kumba Iron Ore will pay less than half of the tax bill it received from the SA Revenue Service (Sars) last year following audits of its export marketing practices during the commodities boom. The settlement of R2.5bn significantly overshot the R1.5bn Kumba had set aside as a contingent liability. It is, however, a fraction of the taxes, penalties and interest payments Sars was pursuing the country’s dominant iron ore producer for. The existence of a potential tax liability was first reported to shareholders in June 2014, but Kumba could only put a number on it early last year when it received a tax assessment of R5 billion for the years 2006 to 2010.

If this account sounds like a lot of accounting gibberish, one might check with other accounts including whatever BDO wrote but these other accounts were even less informative. To paraphrase one commercial “people who know” avoid BDO. I think what happened is that the South African tax authority objected to what it saw as a lowball transfer pricing paid to the South African mining affiliate by a tax haven marketing affiliate and decided to completely disallow any commission income for the tax haven affiliate. This account at least notes that Kumba Iron Ore eventually told its shareholders that there might be some transfer pricing risk and that the issue was eventually resolved with a more modest commission rate booked by the marketing affiliate. So what does this have to do with Ukraine?

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Real average and aggregate wages declined in October

Real average and aggregate wages declined in October

October’s consumer inflation reading came in at a surprisingly high +0.4%, which as shown in red in the graph below, was one of the 3 highest in the past two years. Meanwhile average hourly earnings increased less than +0.2% – the second lowest reading in the past two years, shown in blue:


As a result, real average hourly earnings decreased -0.2% last month, the worst reading since late 2017:

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How economists blew the analysis of the manufacturing jobs shock

How economists blew the analysis of the manufacturing jobs shock

I came across this article yesterday, posted by – to his credit – Brad DeLong, whose argument it eviscerates. Entitled “The Epic MIstake about Manufacturing That’s Cost Americans Millions of Jobs,” it deserves widespread attention. So I am summarizing it here. But by all means go and read the entire piece.

Just to give you the frame of reference, here is the historical graph of manufacturing jobs in the US for the past 50 years:

After peaking in 1979, the number more or less gradually declined in the 1980s, and then stabilized in the 1990s, before plummeting right after 2000.

 

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Scenes from the October employment report: leading sectors remain poor

Scenes from the October employment report: leading sectors remain poor

Yesterday I discussed unemployment and labor force participation from last week’s jobs report, which with the significant exception that better wage growth would probably lead to more people deciding that they’d like a job, remains very positive. Today let’s look at the bad news, which is the same as last month’s: leading indicators for employment are weak to negative.

To begin with, in the last 9 months, per the more reliable establishment report, 1,358,000 jobs have been added, an average of 151,000 per month, including census hiring, a distinct slowdown from 2018’s pace of 205,000:


Next, let’s update the three leading sectors of employment that I have been tracking: temporary help (blue in the graph below), manufacturing (gold), and residential construction (red). Here’s what they look like compared with 2018, showing the slowdown this year (Note: the big decline in manufacturing last month was the GM strike, which will presumably be reversed in November):

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Weekly Indicators for November 4 – 8 at Seeking Alpha

by New Deal democrat

Weekly Indicators for November 4 – 8 at Seeking Alpha

 My Weekly Indicators post is up at Seeking Alpha.
The biggest story of the week was the move higher in long term interest rates. This means that the “yield curve inversion” you’ve read so much about in the past year is over. At the same time, long term interest rates (e.g., for mortgages) haven’t moved back high enough to pose a danger to the housing market. In other words, they’re at a “sweet spot.”
A note on the political implications: my specialty is telling you what the economy is likely to look like a year from now. And one year from now is the 2020 Presidential election. That all of the recent news in the long leading indicators has been improvement means that the economy is very likely to be doing better on Election Day than it is now. Which means that the incumbent candidate’s approval is likely to be higher then than it is now. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump wins, but it is fair to say that it does mean that if the Democratic candidate wins, it will be by a lower margin than the present polling suggests. (I owe you this in a much more detailed post, but I wanted to give you the Cliff’s Note version now.)
Anyway, as usual, clicking over and reading my post at Seeking Alpha should be educational for you, and reward me a little bit for my efforts.

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