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

Simple Answers to Simple Questions, Floyd Norris/GS Edition

Floyd Norris is Shocked! Shocked! to Find Goldman Sachs controls Congress as well as the Treasury. Where has he been for the past three years?

Imagine the reaction if, perhaps during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, a group of Republican legislators had threatened to block legislation unless a contributor to their campaigns received special treatment. Then imagine what would have happened if a powerful House committee chairman had called companies with a direct interest in legislation pending in his committee and asked them to help out that contributor.

Why is this any different?

It isn’t. But why is this any different that the pandering to Goldman that you have been applauding for the entire Paulson/Geithner/Summers maiming of Main Street?

Seasonal Posting: NYTFail, Part 2

First, David Leonhardt argued that this recession was good for workers.

Now, Floyd Norris apparently has decided to mix and match data. (I wonder if the fact many NYT employees who are looking at their 45-day severance offers is having an effect on its economic coverage.)

One of the standard “economist jokes” is about the one who died because he forgot to “seasonally adjust” his pool. In that tradition, Norris declares:

The adjustments are for seasonality. For some reason, October is the month with the largest seasonal adjustment down in jobs. So the increase in the unemployment rate does not reflect people actually losing jobs. It reflects the belief that seasonal factors should have added more jobs than they did.

All this may be very reasonable, and there is no way I can think of to test whether the seasonal adjustments are reliable. [emphases mine]

Gosh, I wonder why October would have a larger seasonal adjustment, and whether there is any BLS data to support that adjustment?

Apparently, employers traditionally hire a lot of people in October for “the Holiday Season.” And while it’s possible that they will be doing all that hiring in November this year, it hasn’t been the way to bet during this millennium.

Norris continues:

But I suspect seasonal factors are less important this year, when the economy may be changing directions, than they normally are.

It was with such optimism that Napoleon went to Russia, people bought VA Linux at $100 a share, and the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld axis decided to run a two-front war in Afghanistan and Iraq. With statements similar to Norris’s:

In reality, the government report says unemployment rates remained steady at 9.5 percent. And the number of jobs actually rose, by 80,000. And the number of jobs for college-educated Americans rose more than in any month in the last six years.

Well, the number of jobs rose (as one would expect, given the Holiday Sales push) but Table B-1 is closer to 40,000 than 80,000:

Where we do see an 80,000 job increase is in the private sector, which is more than 500,000 workers lower than it was in August. If you want to play a non-seasonally adjusted, private-sector only game with the data, you should at least be honest about it.

More vitriol and data below the break.

The details of that 80,000 look even worse: declines in all Goods-producing areas (except about 200 new jobs in primary metals, 300 in “miscellaneous manufacturing,” and 1,100 in motor vehicles and parts; cash for clunkers, anyone?) which are balanced by the Service sector, most notably the 63,500 new Retail jobs. Can you say “seasonal employment”? Floyd Norris apparently cannot.

The rest of the Non-Seasonally Adjusted figures are even less encouraging. Table A-8 of the report shows more than 100,000 people added to “not on temporary layoff”:

while Table A-9 is depressing: a larger number of unemployed at all durations, with the median duration of unemployment increased by more than one month (in a month):

And while the BLS has not updated their Job Openings data for October, the graphic through September isn’t exactly pointing to a decline in that median (or a robust recovery):

Is there a recovery in process? Maybe, though I’m not convinced, since most of the positive data seems, as Paul Krugman noted, “unrepresentative.”

But things are not so good as Floyd Norris wants to pretend, even (or especially) using the data he chooses to highlight.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

I try to like the NYTimes Economics Reporting. I really do. Heck, any place that publishes Uwe Reinhardt can’t be all bad.

But David Leonhardt, as he does often enough that I hesitate to read his work, again goes beyond the pale today, and clearly does so deliberately. The offending paragraph:

Twenty-two months after the start of the mid-1970s recession, real weekly pay was down 7 percent. For the early 1980s recession, the decline was 4 percent. Today, thanks to moderate pay growth and scant inflation, pay is 1 percent higher than when the Great Recession began in December 2007.

Let’s (1) remember that wages are sticky and (2) look at this declaration.

Both of the previous recessions are cited as being about 16 months. The current one probably ran 18 for economists’s purposes, and is in its 23rd month for the rest of us. But let’s give him a pass on that.

Note, however, the careful phrasing at the end of the paragraph: “thanks to moderate pay growth and scant inflation.” What does that mean? Well, let’s look at the Annual inflation Rate (CPI) for the actual recessions under discussion:

Gosh; quite a difference! I wonder if Leonhardt is aware of it.

A finger exercise below the fold.

Just for fun, let’s look at the wage changes over those periods. Now, unlike Leonhardt, I’m not going to use real wages. Let’s see if we can figure out what the nominal change in wages is for each of those periods.*

1973-1975 Average Inflation Rate: 10.75. Real wage loss: 7% Wage increase in period: 3.75% (including the residual effects of wage and price controls)

1980-1982: Average Inflation Rate: 7.5% Real wage loss: 4% Wage increase in period: 3.5%

2007-present: Average Inflation Rate: 1.8% Real wage gain: 1% Wage increase in period: 2.8%

I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t be celebrating the wage “gains” of the current era. (And let’s not even talk about actual wages received, since Barry Ritholz has that territory well-covered and then some).

*If you want to make the case that I should be using real wages, as Leonhardt does, please demonstrate (a) that all wages are renegotiated during a period of inflation, (b) that all parties are able to estimate inflation—even when at relatively unprecedented levels—accurately, and (c) that such negotiations were legally and commercially allowed during the period.

D-Squared Provokes a Call to Action

The close:

[W]hen the New York Times came and offered [Ross Douhat] a column, he did not turn it down saying “no, I clearly do not deserve this honour, others are far more qualified for it that me”.

The NYT thinks Douhat’s important because people link to him. They neither realize—nor care—that you’re laughing at him. They just count the links and think he’s Valuable.

Stop linking. Please. Even the thorough destructions (e.g., Dave Noon) include the trackback.

Don’t include a link to Douhat. Think of the children.

Maybe There IS a Reason Ross Douthat Exists

I have generally decided that the NYT’s attempt at becoming the WSJ on its editorial page is not worth the trouble of discussing. An editorial staph that replaces the despicable but somewhat coherent Bill Kristol with the execrable incoherence of Ross Douthat is clearly suffering a fatal infection, and therefore not deserving of support.

But then the Lovely and Talented Susan of Texas gets loose. And, while there is still no reason to bother with the original, the interpretation is a standard against which all others should be judged:

Shorter Ross Douthat: I tried to have some sort of intercourse about Iraq but the Left was like a chunky Reese Witherspoon, masticating on Colin Powell’s UN presentation and spilling its breasts out of its protests. I wanted to surge into Iraq but the Left wanted a premature withdrawal. If we withdraw, Iraq will swell into violence and give birth to a Middle Eastern abomination, one that even the Left can’t abort.

If you can’t do that, folks—and most of us cannot—don’t bother with the backlinks. It will only delude the NYT that they have some reason to exist that is not named Bob Herbert or Paul Krugman.

Current Recession vs the 1980-82 Recession

By Spencer.

We are getting an interesting debate between different economic bloggers today and I thought I would put in my two cents worth.

Casey Mulligan at economix began it with an argument that the current recession is not as severe as the 1981-82 recession because that recession was really two recessions and if you combine them they were more severe than this recession.

I agree, we never really had a recovery from the 1980 recession and the second recession before the economy returned to full employment.

But that does not necessarily mean that the combined 1980-82 recession was more severe than the current recession.

To judge that one needs to look at the depth of the recession and see how much excess capacity the double 1980-82 recession created compared to the current recession. Maybe the best way to do that is to look at the GDP GAP or the gap between actual Real GDP and Potential Real GDP as this chart does. You can see how the recovery from the 1980 recession was incomplete and the economy was significantly below potential real GDP when the 1981-82 recession began. But we had something similar this cycle. The 2002 -2009 expansion was so weak that real GDP never got back to potential this cycle just as it did not in 1981. The current recession is not yet over. But if you assume that second quarter real GDP falls at a 4% annual rate it creates a GDP GAP of -8.4% as compared to -8.3% at the 1982 bottom. So even when you build into your comparison that the 1980 -82 recession was really two recession, you still come to the conclusion that the depth of this recession is about the same as the combined 1980-82 recessions. So by this standard, the current recession is just as severe as the 1980-82 recession even when you take into account that the earlier recession was a double recession.

A second way of measuring the depth of a recession is to compare how much excess industrial capacity is created and manufacturing capacity utilization does that. Again the chart shows how in both the 1981 recovery and the 2002-2008 expansions the economy failed to recover to prior peaks and entered the recessions with significant excess capacity already existing. But now manufacturing capacity utilization is at 65.7% versus 68.6% at the 1982 bottom. So again this measure shows the depth of the current recession to be greater than the combined 1980-82 recessions even though the current recession is not yet over.

Finally, we can compare the unemployment rate in the two recessions. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.8% at the end of 1982 as compared to the current rate of 8.9%. Of course the current rate is probably not the peak rate. So we will just have to wait and see how this comparison ends.

But when the depth of the current recession is evaluated in term the GDP GAP, capacity utilization and the unemployment rate it is obvious that this recession is creating as much excess capacity as the combined 1980-82 recessions did. So by these measures the argument by Casey Mulligan that the 1980-82 recession was more severe than this recession just does not stand up.

I Remember When Mankiw was still a Neo-Keynesian

Cassander, writing at Steve Keen’s Debtwatch,* puts the hammer to those arguing that the death of the patient had nothing to do with the doctor:

What a load of bollocks.

The “principles of economics” that [N. Gregory] Mankiw champions, and the “More economic research (and teaching)” that [Doug] McTaggart et al are calling for, are the major reason why economists in general were oblivious to this crisis until well after it had broken out.

If they meant “Principles of Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis”, or “More Post Keynesian and Evolutionary economic research”, there might be some validity to their claims. But what they really mean is “principles of neoclassical economics” and “More neoclassical economic research (and teaching)”—precisely the stuff that led to this crisis in the first place. [emphases in original]

Go Read the Whole Thing: a worthy spew of bile from one of the blogs that I’ve been reading a lot recently, in part so I don’t feel guilty not having written the same thing.

*Cassander is, I believe, Keen’s nom-de-blog for non-personal posts. But I could be wrong.

Reads of the Day for the start of 2009

All (somewhat***) via Mark Thoma:

Thomas Frank in the WSJ tells me why I always disagree with Robert (and the Other Economists) on the role of rating agencies:

And who makes sure that Moody’s and its competitors downgrade what deserves to be downgraded? In 1999 the obvious answer would have been: the market, with its fantastic self-regulating powers.

If you look at the spreads of various debt products, you can see that the market was doing that type of job even in 2007. For instance, the debt market priced [“rated”] Bear Stearns’s five-year bond issue in August 2007 at 245 over: rather closer to “junk” status than its rating would have implied. If you compare the debt and stock markets, it’s easy to see which is closer to “rating.” Unfortunately, the area where information is more valuable* is not the one discussed and understood in the press, where BSC kept trading up for several more months.

If a market “regulates” but no one notices, does it make the WSJ?

Brad Setser finishes the destruction of Tyler Cowen’s LTCM “argument” begun by Buce, while revealing its underbelly:

The big banks called to the New York Fed were the creditors of LTCM and they were in some sense “bailed-in.” To avoid taking losses on the credit that they had extended to LTCM, they had to pony up and recapitalize LTCM. [footnoted exception for BSC]

It just so happened that the market recovered and it was possible for LTCM to exit many of its positions without taking large losses, or in some cases any losses. The banks that took control of LTCM when LTCM was on the ropes were able to unwind LTCM’s portfolio in a way that didn’t result in additional losses. But the result Cowen desired — large losses for the banks and broker-dealers who provided credit to LTCM – was quite possible if LTCM’s assets weren’t sufficient to cover all its liabilities. No creditor of LTCM was able to get rid of its exposure as a result of the Fed’s actions. [emphases mine]

It used to be a standard rule that if you wanted to bury something in a newspaper, you published it on a Friday, or the day before a holiday. This seems to be what the NYT is doing with Casey Mulligan (previously discussed here here), who dropped the other shoe yesterday and was, amazingly, worse than expected. PGL at Econospeak does the read and calls out the deed:

Mulligan is essentially saying that those poor saps who have lost their jobs actually quit so they can game the mortgage system. In other words, there is no such thing as involuntary unemployment or being forced to either lose one’s home versus enter into one of these mortgage modification programs.

As noted in the WaPo two weeks ago (via Stan Collender at Capital Gains and Games),** qualifying for the “mortgage modification” program (i.e., reducing the principal on your loan to not more than 90% of the current market value) is an onerous task:

He was hoping he could qualify for the federal government’s Hope for Homeowners program, which allows the Federal Housing Administration to insure a new mortgage if the lender voluntarily writes down the mortgage principal to 90 percent of the new value of the home. But when he asked his bank about that, he was told he would have to be on the brink of foreclosure or have an adjustable-rate mortgage.

So Mulligan is basically blaming (1) those whose ability to keep their home depended on keeping their job and (2) those who took Alan Greenspan’s venal advice to go into ARMs just at the point at which he started raising rates. Class act.

And, finally, lest you think I’m always bashing Tyler Cowen, he notes a phenomenon in chess and suggests a reasonable conclusion:

I also see a general principle operating: the more exact a “science” the game becomes, the smaller is the value of accumulated experience relative to sheer skill.

The sheer is dicey, but the identification of the shift in proportionality may be accurate, and probably has applications in economics as well.

*The debt market is less liquid and therefore considers information more valuable. This is effectively the corollary of the DeLong, Shliefer, Summers and Waldmann papers: if you can’t depend on momentum trading, you take more care not to be the “greater fool.”

**Yes, I saw the Collender-bashing in my previous post. I’ve said before that CG&G became significantly less readable after the election, and am foolishly optimistic enough to believe that they may be returning to rationality. Besides, he happened to be correct: any given from increased military spending is definitionally no better (and likely worse) than spending the same amount on public infrastructure.

***I read PGL’s piece before seeing it in the links, but they’re all there.