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

Let’s get real about coronavirus testing . . .

We do not know how severe the covid-19 epidemic will be or how much economic and social pain it will cause, but it clearly has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans, and the economic consequences could include a deep recession and even a financial crisis that will cause misery to tens of millions of people.

Testing is key to getting the epidemic under control, and it is not clear to me that policymakers are being nearly as aggressive about expanding testing capacity as they should be.  Think of two alternative testing strategies.  One strategy is to selectively test people who have symptoms or who may have been exposed to someone with the disease.  The alternative strategy is to develop the ability to do mass screenings for the virus among the general population.  (There are various intermediate strategies one can imagine, such as doing mass screenings in local areas with a high incidence of disease.)  Of course, selective testing is the place to start, but the ability to do mass screenings would allow us to pro-actively identify and isolate almost all carriers and would thus avoid the need for widespread social isolation which is wreaking havoc on the economy.  Selective screenings, in contrast, may or may not be able to contain the epidemic sufficiently to allow normal economic activity to resume.

I am not sure what is being done to expand our testing capacity, but if we want to develop the ability to do mass screenings, we need to make it a priority nowThe government will need to contract with equipment manufacturers and other suppliers (of reagents, swabs, protective gear, etc.) for large capacity commitments on a short timeline.  I have no idea what this would cost or even if it is feasible, but if there is even a small chance that the epidemic will last for six months or return next winter, it seems that a $10 or $20 billion investment in testing capacity would be short money.

The Democrats should jump on this as they take up the next coronavirus response bill.  Not only is it good policy, it will give them an opportunity to highlight the fumbling, timid response of the Trump administration to the crisis.

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Walter Bagehot Explains to the Fed What They Should Have Done on Thursday

The day before yesterday, the Fed made a somewhat unusual announcement of $500,000,000,000 of REPO offers a day for three days in a row. The idea was to let banks unload risky assets before they panicked nipping a financial crisis in the bud.

This move was controversial. Unfortunately many critics act as if the Fed was giving away $ 1,500,000,000,000 rather than buying assets with it. I hazard a guess that the Fed will profit from the operation (their efforts to save the financial system in 2009 generated the largest profits recorded in human history as an unintended side effect). However, it is also clear that the transaction amounts to a subsidy to banks. The Fed will pay a higher price than would have cleared the market. $ 1.5 Trillion will do that. Back in 2009 the Fed bought mortgage backed securities at the market rate when they were the only buyer in the market. This means that the open market operation was a massive subsidy (which also generated record profits).

The fact that the Fed pays much more than the market would without their intervention is pleasant for banks. Driving up the price of risky assets is part of the point of the operation. However it is also very irritating.

Fortunately someone figured out what they should have done. Walter Bagehot explained it clearly in 1873. The idea is that the central bank should lend freely accepting as collateral assets which would be accepted by private agents in normal times but not during the crisis. But Bagehot did not advise lending at the rate which prevailed before the crisis. Rather the maxim is lend freely at a penalty rate

 

First. That these loans should only be made at a very high rate of interest. This will operate as a heavy fine on unreasonable timidity, and will prevent the greatest number of applications by persons who did not require it. The rate should be raised early in the panic, so that the fine may be paid early; that no one may borrow out of idle precaution without paying well for it; that the Banking reserve may be protected as far as possible.

 

Another way of putting it is that the Fed should buy risky assets at a price markedly lower than the pre.crisis price and contract to sell them back to banks at normal prices after the crisis is expected to be over. This is the REPO is the same as a collateralized loan irritating finance terminology issue (also there is no O in repurchase so why the hell is it called a REPO).

Another way of putting it is that we don’t want solvent firms to go bankrupt and be liquidated. In plain English this means if one can save a firm with a loan, then one should. The idea is that the firm should still exist when the crisis is over. In other words, the shares of the firm will still have positive value and won’t be worthless pieces of paper.

Bagehot’s point is that we also want that positive value to be low. Firms (which must be depositary institutions according to the Federal Reserve Act) should still exist even if they have to borrow from the lender of last resort. But to make sure it is the lender of very last resort, they shouldn’t be worth much.

Any value of a firm which needed the lender of last resort is basically a gift to owners who messed up and a moral hazard.

To combine this with the need for equity capital, it is possible to TARP, that is make the penalty rate loan junior to other debt as preferred shares not bonds.

Another point is that sometimes obtaining annual profits of only $97,700,000,000 is not satisfactory performance.

The main point is that if the Fed can make $97,700,000,000 while also granting a massive subsidy, then the previous arrangement was not efficient. The problem is that entities with deep but not infinitely deep pockets can’t always bear risk. The solution is for the government to be the residual claimant. That’s called socialism and the market says it works.

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The Stock Market in Presidential Terms

Before the recent swoon stock market market performance under Trump had been quite favorable. The market gain since his inauguration (100) had been (144) similar to those under Clinton (141) and Obama (150). At this point Ike actually had the best return ( 170) but Ike and Truman are not included  in the chart because it is too cluttered already.

After the recent market drop he is now more or less in the middle of the pact for recent presidents  — even with JFK-LBJ and behind most democrats and ahead of most republicans.

But if he wants a strong market-economy going into the election it is easy to see why he strongly favors the 50 basis point cut by the Fed. The market doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of the Fed’s actions, first rallying strongly and then turning negative.  It still does not have a handle om what economic impact to expect from the coronavirus. Maybe the Fed fears a bigger impact than markets were already discounting. Or, maybe the Fed is just taking out insurance in the face of extreme uncertainty.

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Where is the puzzling growth in service jobs coming from?

Where is the puzzling growth in service jobs coming from?

Continuing with my week of follow-up stories based on last Friday’s jobs report, I noted last Friday that there was a completely anomalous upwards revision of nearly 100,000 jobs in the last 8 months of 2019. This after a -500,000 decrease, based on full data, in the previous 12 months!

So I took two approaches: a bottoms-up micro view, and a top-down macro view — and got contradictory answers. This post is up at Seeking Alpha.

Since that article was posted, a correspondent pointed out that some of the biggest upward revisions were to the retail trade. So here are a few supplemental graphs.

First, all retail jobs plus all leisure and entertainment jobs:

Next, the sectors of retail with the biggest gains:

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Does America Hate Its Children?

December 2012,  Robert Reich wrote about America’s children   .   .   .    Remember the Children.

“America’s children seem to be shortchanged on almost every issue we face as a society.

Not only are we failing to protect our children from deranged people wielding semi-automatic guns.

We’re not protecting them from poverty. The rate of child poverty keeps rising – even faster than the rate of adult poverty. We now have the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

And we’re not protecting their health. Rates of child diabetes and asthma continue to climb. America has the third-worst rate of infant mortality among 30 industrialized nations and the second-highest rate of teenage pregnancy, after Mexico.

If we go over the “fiscal cliff” without a budget deal, several programs focused on the well-being of children will be axed – education, child nutrition, school lunches, children’s health, Head Start.

Even if we avoid the cliff, any “grand bargain” to tame to deficit is likely to jeopardize them.

The Urban Institute projects the share of federal spending on children (outlays and tax expenditures) will drop from 15 percent last year to 12 percent in 2022.

At the same time, states and localities have been slashing preschool and after-school programs, child care, family services, recreation, and mental-health services.

It seems as if every one of usual major interests have political clout – except children. They can’t vote. They don’t make major campaign donations. They can’t hire fleets of lobbyists.

Yet they’re America’s future.

If you follow the link to Robert Reich’s commentary you can read what major interests have the clout and dominate America’s interests.

 

Eight years later, January 2020 and Paul Krugman is asked a question by a correspondent.

“What important issue aren’t we talking about?”

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Does the United States Have a Progressive Future?

Spoiler alert:  maybe.

The surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, widespread protests against Trump, and the election of a number of highly progressive candidates in the 2018 midterms all seem to suggest a progressive turning point in American politics.  At the very least, the intellectual stranglehold of right-wing economic ideas on our political discourse seems to have been broken.  Progressive proposals for Medicare for All, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, free college, child support, and the Green New Deal are all generating enthusiasm among Democrats and getting a more respectful hearing in mainstream political circles than would have seemed possible even 5 years ago.

I agree that greater interest in progressive policy ideas among journalists, political leaders, and the policy elite is an important political development, but it is a common mistake to read too much into short-term swings in public opinion or the results of a single election.  So it is useful to step back and ask what we know about the path to a progressive future in the United States.

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News and Words that Caught My Eye this Week

Teacher of the Year‘ kneels during college football championship attended by Trump,”ABC News, January 16, 2020

During a ceremony honoring the 2019 “Teachers of the Year,” one in particular stood out.

The honoree from Minnesota, Kelly Holstine, chose to kneel during the national anthem at the NCAA football championship game on Monday, where the ceremony took place, “to stand up for marginalized and oppressed people,” according to a tweet she wrote, which included a photograph of her kneeling.

“Like many before, I respectfully kneeled during Nat’l Anthem because, ‘No one is free until we are all free,'” she wrote, referencing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and citing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Virginia school board refuses to ban Confederate flag” from the dress code, Today, Alyssa Newcomb, January 16, 2020

A Virginia school board is refusing a dress code ban on clothing showing the Confederate flag, despite the appeals of the board’s only black member.

The Franklin County School Board in Rocky Mount, Virginia, voted 7-1 on Monday against formally writing a ban on the Confederate flag into the dress code. The board cited Tinker vs. Des Moines, a 1969 case that ruled students were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War and did not lose their right to free expression, even while attending school.

“In Franklin County, we do not have any documented cases of a substantial disruption caused by the Confederate flag

The Miseducation of the American Boy,” The Atlantic, Peggy Orenstein, January 15, 2020

I knew nothing about Cole before meeting him; he was just a name on a list of boys at a private school outside Boston who had volunteered to talk with me (or perhaps had had their arm twisted a bit by a counselor). The afternoon of our first interview, I was running late. As I rushed down a hallway at the school, I noticed a boy sitting outside the library, waiting—it had to be him. He was staring impassively ahead, both feet planted on the floor, hands resting loosely on his thighs.

My first reaction was Oh no.

It was totally unfair, a scarlet letter of personal bias. Cole would later describe himself to me as a “typical tall white athlete” guy, and that is exactly what I saw. At 18, he stood more than 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and short-clipped hair.

Additional after the Leap

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Long Bond Yields vs The Long Wave

Different  bloggers  have been posting their favorite charts of 2019 this January.  So I decided to post my favorite chart of the past 20, or more, “years of the long bond yield versus the long run trend.”  Bond yields are now below their long run trend and may be at or near a secular bottom.  Of course no one rings a bell at the turning point so we probably will only identify the bottom long  after it actually occurs.

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Summing Up the Last Decade

To steal from Sandwichman’s excellent commentary on 2020 Hindsight and use a quotation from it which does give the magnitude of the last 10 years in financial terms;

“A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four” (since 1970). There is a cost to this and one which can be seen in the US as this debt formation is not going to “meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, as much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms”

akin to what we began to see in 2000 and culminating in 2007/8 with a disastrous economic collapse.

The Atlantic’s Anne Lowry also writes about the last decade. Perhaps, she is the wrong author to pick upon and use to summarize the impact of the economy on the nation’s population. And again others may disagree with my choice; however in this case, I appreciate her summation on what she notes in passing; The Decade in Which Everything Was Great But Felt Terrible.

Picking the best story encapsulating the economy of the last decade she chose CamperForce: depicting elderly nomads living in vans and RVs and spending their twilight years temping at Amazon fulfillment centers, other places, setting up temp businesses, etc. after losing savings, homes, and belongings in the 2008 crash.

If there was a positive spin to this recital it would be of people wanting the structure and community work can provide well into retirement age, the freedom and mobility associated with a RV life, the flexibility of temp gigs, or not being nailed down to place, job, etc. The story is not of a newly realized freedom in retirement; CamperForce consisted of grandparents who had been evicted from their homes during the housing collapse and were struggling to stay out of poverty. It’s a modern-day, AARP twist on The Grapes of Wrath.

To use Anne’s words; perhaps the most representative story is that of the former graduate student who ended up as a warehouse janitor or the thousands of people who have gone online to beg for money to help them stay afloat through a life-threatening illness.

In finality these stories cast a reality in the names and faces depicting today’s economic impact; the real, urgent, and indelible marks of this past decade’s failings. The ten years without a single month of serious recession with the United States growing to its wealthiest point ever and still longevity fell, and it became clear that a whole generation was losing its place in the hierarchy.

The central economic message given to us from the 2010s? No matter how well the market was doing, how long the expansion lasted, and how much the economy grew; families still struggled and lost ground in the economic hierarchy. Because the decade did so little for so many, it strained America’s idea of what economic growth could and should do.

The rest of Anne Lowry’s story can be found here; “The Decade in Which Everything Was Great But Felt Terrible,” The Atlantic, December 31, 2019.

It is a good read.

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2020 Hindsight: Why the world is not zero-sum

According to a report, Global Waves of Debt, pre-published by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise.

We hear from time to time that “the world is not zero sum.” Rarely is that dictum explained in other than mystical terms (e.g. “supply creates its own demand,” “human wants are insatiable,” etc.). The explanation, however, is simple: debt. Without debt there would be no “economic growth.”
Debt finances growth; growth services debt. And they all lived happily ever after. But some debt takes “riskier forms.” Hyman Minsky wrote about the first of those four debt waves in “The Bubble in the Price of Baseball Cards.” In that paper Minsky addressed the price of baseball cards, the Latin American debt crisis, the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese real estate and equity booms of the ’80s, and “[o]ne of the puzzles of the 1980s… the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump.”
What the rise in Trump’s wealth had in common with the Latin American debt crisis was that they both were predicated on a precarious differential between real interest rates and increases in asset values that could change very suddenly with an increase in the former or a decrease in the latter.
One of Minsky’s best shots was a drive-by — relating the regional increase in real estate prices to “rapid increase in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham.” That Drexel Burnham “success” was, of course, transitory and involved fraud. The inference was that Trump’s financial success, too, was ultimately — at least indirectly — fraudulent.
John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “bezzle” for the amount by which total wealth is inflated by embezzlement in the period before the embezzlement is discovered:

At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in—or more precisely not in—the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle.

Any large quantity of debt includes an inventory of embezzlement. A certain amount of it will never be paid back. Some was never intended to be repaid. As the debt increases relative to income, the proportion of prospective embezzlement also increases.

Happy New Year!

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