Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.

inflation-vs-employment

Piqued by Piketty?

“Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

– Benjamin Franklin

bankers2

Over the past 18 months there’s been a gushing and gnashing over the book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. I have to admit I’m a bit late to the party and am just getting around to reading (perusing?) it. (I have a good excuse – an 18 mo. old baby.)

Seems most of the feedback has been delineated by political ideology – the left embraces Piketty’s work and the right dismisses it. Perhaps we can pursue a non-ideological tack to dissect Piketty’s take on capitalism.

Piketty has been rightly praised for the work he has led on the collection of historical wealth and income data, and he generously offers this data to the world for future study. Most of the controversy involves his particular interpretation of these historical statistics, claiming that inequalities have reached the same levels as the roaring ’20s a century earlier. Depending on one’s measures and comparisons, that might be argued as true. The devil is in the details.

Piketty makes broad claims that inequality is inherent to the internal dynamics of capitalist markets and that the interim period – 1930s-1970s – was a reversal due to the wealth destruction of the Great Depression and WWII. Then he explicates his “law” of capital that the rate of return on capital (r) will always exceed the rate of economic growth (g), leading to ever narrower concentrations of wealth among the owners of capital. But this is too broad a brush.

We need to unbundle the capitalist wealth creating process and the dynamics of distribution in order to understand why the data looks the way it does. How, when and why does r exceed g and what are the distributional consequences? Piketty so far has not provided satisfying answers.

First, he defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being productive or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as collectibles such as art and jewelry. Thus, there is no distinction made between financial or physical capital or non-productive real assets and thus no explanation for why different asset classes might experience varying growth rates and what that means for wealth and incomes. The return on capital does not always exceed the growth rate and will often drop precipitously over the business or trade cycle, as well as due to the falling marginal rate of return on existing investment. (Certainly r was negative for a considerable period of time during the Great Depression, the 70s stagnation and our recent Great Recession.) With his broad brush, Piketty ignores these insightful details.

Financial assets, as claims on real assets (a form of derivative really), often fluctuate more widely than real assets. Real asset classes that are illiquid, such as art and real estate, often don’t trade, thus making true value difficult to ascertain. Let us explain why this matters (see Figure I.1 below from Piketty’s dataset): The two periods that Piketty claims represent his conclusion on inequality (red circles) were both marked by financial asset bubbles fomented by easy credit bubbles (green squares). In both cases, when the credit crunch inevitably came, these asset prices adjusted quite drastically and quickly, erasing much of the wealth accumulated during the bubble (look at the wealth shares of the 1% over time – it’s quite a roller coaster ride). The difference today is that we have harnessed public credit to maintain these inflated asset prices. Let me make the difference plain: in the panic of 1929 and the early ’30s stock brokers jumped out of windows to their untimely deaths; after the panic of Lehman’s collapse, they jumped out with Federal Reserve-issued parachutes and landed safely on their yachts and vineyards.

Income-USA-1910-2010Piketty’s graph does highlight a concern here. The massive crash in asset prices and capital incomes after 1940 was surely due to the destruction of WWII when high property values in Europe became worthless. The central banks of the world have done their utmost to prevent such a crash after 2008, but one can still manage a price correction to reassert pre-bubble values. Admittedly, this is difficult to do with debt and requires a lot of bankruptcy that needs to be managed. But instead we’ve reflated the bubble asset prices at the high end, and with them the high incomes derived from capital. Life is good when you’re the king (or the Fed chairperson).

Second, we should understand that housing is playing an outsized role in our recent widening of wealth inequality. Housing policy rewarded real estate investments over other investments during the long credit bubble that accompanied the maturation of the baby boom generation (green square on right). This gave the housing sector a double stimulus: rising demand plus a generous tax preference. When housing wealth is stripped from the current distribution of capital, wealth inequality appears much flatter (see Rognlie).

So, rather than some immutable law of capitalism, perhaps Piketty has identified an artifact of short-sighted policy, especially by central banks and government housing policy. In our recent financial market “correction,” these asset prices have not really corrected, as de-leveraging of private credit (mostly in the FIRE sector) has merely been assumed by public credits. The Fed has expanded its balance sheet by about $4.5 trillion and the Treasury has increased the total debt by almost $8 trillion. With all that liquidity sloshing around, the rich have gotten richer because of their ownership of capital assets, both real and financial, while economic growth and employment have stagnated because of de-leveraging and the uncertainty of price distortions keyed off a deliberately depressed interest rate. These monetary and fiscal policies have greatly aggravated inequality and created the more serious problem of allowing those with inflated financial assets to trade them for more permanent real assets, thus narrowing the control over these real asset classes. In the distant past this was called feudalism and we risk recreating such class distinctions.

Nevertheless, Piketty hits on some key truths about the workings of capitalism, none of which are really new but are worth reiterating. First, we call it CAPITAL-ism for a reason – it depends on the accumulation and productive deployment of capital in order to create wealth. To quote Ben Franklin: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

For the same reason we don’t call it LABOR-ism, because capitalism is about successful risk-taking and our property rights legal system assigns risks and returns to a priori ownership claims. For too long we’ve understood the distributional mechanism of capitalism to be wage incomes, when an increasing share of that distribution is remitted through capital ownership claims on profits. Technology and globalization has only amplified this trend. In addition, a mature capitalist society with an aging demographic depends on an increasing share of rents earned by accumulated capital.

The growing disparity of wage incomes can be largely traced to incomes associated with financial capital, such as in the FIRE sector, and by winner-take-all, or superstar, markets in many professions such as entertainment and sports, but also among corporate managerial elites. In a free and just society this inequality needs to be addressed, but turning back to a laborist model of economic development would mean turning back the tides of trade and freedom.

Rather, we need to promote capital accumulation across the broadest stretch of the population. This simple graph of the relationship between physical capital per worker and income shows the symbiosis between these two factors of production – we merely need to cease dividing them into their antagonistic corners through misguided tax policy.

capital-income – from David Weil, Economic Growth.

In addition, we need policies that promote long-term risk-taking and risk management and de-emphasize short-term asset trading. A return to saving and prudent investment will require disciplinary constraints on credit policy, something we’ve lost with too much central bank discretion over monetary policy. The question is how will we attain that discipline with a fiat monetary regime that allows credit creation according to the policy whims of the central bank and the Treasury?

The answers to inequality are not simple and certainly more complex than Piketty’s retrograde and admittedly unworkable proposal of taxing capital for redistribution by the state. The leftist appeal of this argument readily embraces the idea that wealth in private hands is somehow more easily abused than wealth in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Tell that to the victims of statism across former Soviet societies. Instead, wealth should be enjoyed by the widest possible swath of the citizenry to be earned by the sweat of their brows and the liberated ingenuity of their imaginations. As I presented in an earlier post, Billie Holiday makes the most insightful observation when it comes to our capitalist society: “God Bless the Child that’s got his own.”

The Bull Market Bull

bullx-large

From David Stockman’s blog:

Never has there been a more artificial—-indeed, phony—–gain in the stock market than the 215% eruption orchestrated by the Fed since the post-crisis bottom six years ago today. And the operative word is “orchestrated” because there is nothing fundamental, sustainable, logical or warranted about today’s S&P 500 index at 2080.

In fact, the fundamental financial and economic rot which gave rise to the 672 index bottom on March 9, 2009 has not been ameliorated at all. The US economy remains mired in even more debt, less real productive investment, fewer breadwinner jobs and vastly more destructive financialization and asset price speculation than had been prevalent at the time of the Lehman event in September 2008.

Indeed, embedded in Friday’s allegedly “strong” jobs report is striking proof that the main street economy is the very opposite of bullish. In January 2015 there were still 2 million fewer full-time, full-pay “breadwinner” jobs in the US economy than there were before the crisis in December 2007.

breadwinner

Read more

 

The Bubble Economy Redux

cartoon-bubble-v31

Good article. A little sunshine goes a long way. The reason QE hasn’t caused inflation is because of massive disinflationary forces around the world unleashed by excessive credit and debt creation. People won’t borrow at low interest rates if they already have too much debt, they merely refinance. Banks also do not want to lend in an uncertain monetary environment with distorted prices of collateral, so they leave their excess reserves idle or buy Treasury bonds and earn the difference.

But QE HAS generated much asset price inflation in real and financial assets, hence the booms in select housing, land, art, and financial markets. The Fed thus has caused relative price distortion that is greatly impeding long-term risk-taking, production, and job creation. Is this a secret? I think not. Time for a reckoning of monetary and fiscal policy.

From the National Review Online:

The Other Bubble

Some highly placed people don’t want a serious discussion of quantitative easing.

By Amity Shlaes

Back in the late 1990s and right up to 2007, journalists occasionally wondered about two big enterprises called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie had come out of an obscure period of American history, the New Deal. Freddie had been created more recently, but no one could explain quite how. The official job of the pair was to provide liquidity in the housing sector in various ways, including creating a secondary market in securities backed by mortgage loans. Whatever Fan and Fred did, their form seemed a contradictory hybrid: On the one hand they were “private.” On the other hand their bonds sold at a premium over other bonds, suggesting that the Treasury or the Fed would always bail them out. These “government-sponsored enterprises,” as they were known, were both growing. Logic suggested that the more they grew, the more bailing them out would rattle markets.

Yet if a reporter took a stab at explaining these mystery entities in a story, or even merely spotlighted them, that reporter paid for it. Fannie and Freddie’s big executives, credentialed power brokers from both parties, hopped on the Shuttle and came to New York to bully the newspaper into shutting up. The executives suggested the journalists weren’t bright enough to appreciate the financial mechanics of Fannie or Freddie. This brazen effort at intimidation was unusual. Even senior editors could recall nothing like it — unless they were old enough to have met with a Teamster.

Those writers who experienced this finger-wagging and strong-arming in the conference room will never forget the queasy feeling they engendered. Fannie and Freddie’s lobbyists did not succeed in muzzling big news. From time to time, even after such a visit, editors ordered up and reporters wrote articles probing the GSEs. But when it came to big, sustained investigations, most newspapers turned to easier topics. When, much later, Fannie and Freddie proved to have been ticking time bombs and set off the financial crisis, the reporters told themselves that the very blatancy of the effort to intimidate should have tipped them off. They vowed to respond differently should that queasy feeling ever return.

Well, queasy is back. And this time, the strong arm belongs not to the boss of the company, Janet Yellen of the Fed, but to a media supporter, Paul Krugman of the New York Times. Unlike the old Fan and Fred execs, Krugman isn’t administering his punishment in the privacy of a conference room but rather in his columns and blogs. Example: This week, the professor’s target was actually another man qualified to be a professor, Cliff Asness, a University of Chicago Ph.D. who does his own academic work. Asness also runs tens of billions at a hedge fund, a fact that suggests he has thought about interest rates and the Fed quite a bit. To Asness Krugman wrote: “But if you’re one of those people who don’t have time to understand the monetary debate, I have a simple piece of advice: Don’t lecture the chairman of the Fed on monetary policy.”

What triggered Krugman’s pulling some kind of imagined rank on Asness was that Asness, along with me and others, signed a letter a few years ago suggesting that Fed policy might be off, and that inflation might result. Well, inflation hasn’t come on a big scale, apparently. Or not yet. Still, a lot of us remain comfortable with that letter, since we figure someone in the world ought always to warn about the possibility of inflation. Even if what the Fed is doing is not inflationary, the arbitrary fashion in which our central bank responds to markets betrays a lack of concern about inflation. And that behavior by monetary authorities is enough to make markets expect inflation in future.

Besides, the Fed cannot keep interest rates this low forever. As former Fed governor Larry Lindsey notes, the cycle of quantitative easing has become predictable: “QE1 ends. Stock market sells off. QE2 begins. Then, QE2 ends. Stock market sells off. Operation Twist starts to be soon followed by a full-blown start of QE3. Now here we are in October and QE3 is finally winding down. This time it was ‘tapered’ rather than abruptly ended. Still, stock market sells off.” Concludes Lindsey: “Whenever the Fed withdraws a stimulus it is going to be painful. Whenever officials flinch and ease because of the pain it just becomes harder next time.”

Given all the confusion, it would surely be useful have a vigorous debate on the Federal Reserve law and Fed policy — one that includes all kinds of arguments, and in which nobody calls anybody a “wing nut.” One that asks whether stock prices or, for that matter, housing prices may reflect inflation or deflation, or whether the dollar will always behave the way it does now. The authorities’ response — “We’re smart, so be quiet” — suggests that the greatest bubble of all bubbles may be the bubble of credibility of central bankers. Whenever that one pops, the whole world will feel queasy.

Nowhere to Run to…

QE ForeverJust something we’ve been talking about at this blog for the past five years…can’t borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

From the WSJ:

A Year of Living on the Brink

Ebola, ISIS, Ukraine, a stock-market wipeout—there’s nowhere to hide.

By Daniel Henninger

Oct. 15, 2014

History will mark down 2014 as the year predicted 49 years ago by Martha and the Vandellas. In 1965 the group recorded a Motown classic, “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide.” We’re there, at the brink.

Liberia, ISIS, Ukraine, Hong Kong, a hospital fighting Ebola infections in Dallas, the year’s stock-market gains obliterated, and I almost forgot—just last week Secretary of State John Kerry warned that climate change could end life as we know it.

Then this week the clouds parted and the year’s best news arrived: Led by Europe’s sinking economies, global economic growth is falling, taking stocks and bonds with it, and the world’s central bankers say they have run out of ideas on doing anything about it. [That took long enough.]

How this is good news requires explanation.

The annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund concluded in Washington last weekend. This gathering of the world’s finance ministers, central bankers and international financial organizations sets the tone for the direction of the world’s economic prospects.

As the meetings ended Sunday, a WSJ.com headline summarized the consensus: “Governments, central bankers have fewer tools left to revive economies after years of sluggish growth.” European officials are now talking about a “lost decade.” The IMF calls the economic policies in the years after the 2008 financial crisis a succession of “serial disappointments.”

Let’s begin with the first and most significant policy disappointment. The central economic event of the past six years, both as policy and symbol, was the Obama administration’s $834 billion stimulus bill in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Its explicit purpose was to revive the U.S. economy. How was nearly $1 trillion of additional federal spending supposed to do that? [Here we call that a Crapshoot with OPM (other peoples’ money).]

Proponents of the stimulus bill’s theoretical underpinnings, which date to the 1930s and a famous economist with three names, have argued for 80 years that by injecting large quantities of money into a weak economy (public spending), the population will use the unexpected money to make purchases, and this stimulated consumption in turn will cause private companies to hire more workers to produce goods to meet—the key idea—demand.

Beyond this textbook, Depression-based effort at economic stimulus, the only other significant initiative taken by the Obama presidency (not counting the indirect effects of Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare, shutting down power plants, putting bankers under house arrest and whatnot) has been to transfer responsibility for economic growth to the Federal Reserve Bank. The Fed produced three rounds of quantitative easing, a monetary policy that created so-called zero-bound interest rates in the U.S. from late 2008 until now. The Bank of England followed. Early last month, the European Central Bank adopted its own version of quantitative easing. It’s been the greatest monetary experiment since the creation of coins around 700 B.C.

It is essentially the prescriptive promise of this 2009 to 2014 policy mix that was repudiated by officials at the IMF meetings in Washington the past week. Recognizing the real need, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said, “There is too little economic risk-taking, and too much financial risk-taking.” [Here we call that Casino Capitalism.]

The U.S. and Europe have paid a high price for six years of stimulus that didn’t stimulate, programmed consumption that fell short, regulatory expansion that froze private producers, and high tax-rate regimes that benefited the public-spending class and beggared everyone else, especially young people and the working poor scrambling for jobs.

No one should underestimate the political dangers of persisting with a Keynesian economic model that looks depleted.

Several months ago this newspaper described how younger Europeans who are unemployed or underemployed have become bitter at their parents’ generation for wallowing in a system whose labor protections suppress the creation of new jobs. Economic anxiety in turn has fueled the rise of extremist political movements in France, Germany, England, Hungary and elsewhere.

Sustained, seemingly irreversible, weak economic growth in Europe or the U.S. is a political risk to national stability.

There is an alternative economic policy set to this failure. It would be based on the best policies that produced strong growth and jobs in major, formerly moribund Western economics.

Those successes include the German labor-market reforms initiated by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003; the structural public-spending reductions begun in Canada in 1995 by Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin and sustained by current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Harvard economist Alberto Alesina has documented the pro-growth payoff from permanent spending reductions); Poland’s remarkable post-Soviet revival from the 1989-91 pro-market reforms of Leszek Balcerowicz ; and of course the primary model—the U.S.’s tax-rate reductions and regulatory reforms in Ronald Reagan ’s presidency.

The key element in reviving the West isn’t economics, though that matters. It is political courage. Each example of high-growth success required a political leader willing to stand against finance ministries and a financial media that will ride demonstrably failed models off another cliff.

Given the admission of generalized policy collapse at the IMF meetings, what we are talking about is the courage of one leader: the next American president.

The Politics and Policies of Inequality

American-Roulette I won’t blame this on the man or the office, but definitely on the policies pursued. Yes, from the WSJ:

The President of Inequality

Policies promoting equality over growth have damaged both.

Oct. 2, 2014 7:26 p.m. ET
In the latest grim tiding of the public mood, merely 42% think the American dream that “if you work hard, you’ll get ahead” remains true, down from 53% in 2012 and 50% in 2010. According to the Public Religion Research Institute poll last week, the steepest declines in belief in the last two years were among people under age 30 (down 16 percentage points), women (14 points) and Democrats (17).In other words, the most disillusioned belong to the coalition that elected President Obama. But before giving up on upward mobility, they ought to blame the policies he has enacted. Mr. Obama has been the best President for slow growth and inequality in modern history, as new economic surveys show.

***

Start with the Census Bureau’s annual poverty and income survey, which came out this month. Real U.S. median household income—or the wages earned in the middle of the wage distribution—was $51,939, a 0.3% increase over 2012. But the 2013 figure is still 3.9% lower than the median income when the recession ended in 2009, and 7.9% lower than the median in 2007.

One trick some liberals use to obscure the uniquely bad performance of the Obama years is to go back to the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999 when real income peaked at $56,895 and compare it to 2013. But this conveniently ignores that real median household income rebounded smartly in the middle of the last decade. That rebound occurred after the Bush tax cuts on capital income and marginal income-tax rates became law in 2003.

As the nearby chart shows, incomes fell after 1999 through 2004 but then rose again for three straight years and nearly reached the 1999 level in 2007 at $56,436. The bottom fell out with the 2008 financial panic and recession, as you would expect. But the amazing fact of the Obama years is that incomes did not rebound with the recovery as they have in every other expansion. Only in 2013 did incomes begin to pick up modestly, five long years into recovery.

Even then real median income did not increase in 2013 in 36 states. Instead, the gains were concentrated in metro areas like Washington-Arlington-Alexandria (median: $90,149), San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward ($79,624) and Boston-Cambridge-Newton ($72,907). Wyoming amid the fracking revolution was another standout, with the median rising 5.7%.

This slow, uneven growth has also led to an increase in inequality by the measures the President’s favorite economists like to cite. The Census reports that the U.S. Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, “was significantly higher” in 2013, rising to 0.481 from 0.476. About 45.3 million people or 14.5% of the population live below the official poverty line, down from 15% in 2012 but statistically the same number of people. Poverty over the prior four years rose to the highest levels since the mid-1960s. The poverty rate was 14.3% in 2009 and 12.5% in 2007.

This month the Federal Reserve also published its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances examining the 2010-2013 period. Overall average real family income rose 4%, but median income fell 5%, “consistent with increasing income concentration.” There were essentially no changes for people between the 40th and 90th income percentiles after steep losses from 2007-2010, while median income rose 2% among the top 10% and fell 5.5% among the bottom 40%.

All of this is especially notable because it follows the most sustained policy focus on reducing inequality in decades. President Obama’s stimulus spending in 2009-2010 was devoted mainly to transfer payments like Medicaid and jobless benefits. Expanding the number of Americans on food stamps and disability payments have been explicit policy goals. ObamaCare is designed to provide “free” health care to millions of Americans by taxing the wealthy and those who already have insurance.

Mr. Obama has also focused on income redistribution to punish the affluent while financing income transfers. So he cornered Republicans in the 2013 fiscal cliff and succeeded in raising the top income tax rate as well as levies on capital gains, dividends and small-business income.

On CBS ‘s “60 Minutes” on Sunday Mr. Obama answered a question about economic anxiety by offering another increase in the minimum wage. But the Nancy Pelosi Democrats raised the minimum wage in three stages to $7.25 an hour in 2009 from $5.15 in 2007. If mandated wages are so beneficial to the American worker, where is the evidence?

The Census data show that every income group that was supposed to benefit from the higher wages is worse off than before the minimum wage was increased. This is because the benefits of mandated wage increases for some workers are dwarfed by the overall negative economic trends of slower growth and reduced opportunity.

Another culprit [the main culprit, I would say] in this skewed economic recovery has been monetary policy. The Fed’s QE exertions have been explicitly targeted at raising asset prices, such as stocks and real estate, that are disproportionately held by the affluent. Meantime, Americans without such assets have received a pittance on their savings. The White House has been a stalwart supporter of these Fed policies.

***

Census data like this used to get banner headlines, but these days they barely get media notice. Perhaps it is too embarrassing to point out that the policies flaunted to reduce inequality have presided over so much more of it. Instead, liberals use the fact of flat or falling incomes to call for more of the same policies that have resulted in flat or falling incomes. By making equality a higher priority than economic growth, Mr. Obama has reduced growth and increased inequality.

What’s needed now is a return to policies that put growth as the country’s highest economic priority. The wealthy may get richer as a result, but so will the middle class and poor who haven’t benefited from Mr. Obama’s focus on inequality.

The good news is that the public may be ahead of the politicians in seeking this change, and it is certainly ahead of the media. A survey this year by the Global Strategy Group found that by 59% to 37% Americans prefer a political candidate who focuses on economic growth to one who focuses on fairness. Thus is Mr. Obama creating, albeit unintentionally, a new opening for the politics of growth.

The 1% Conundrum

Worshiping_Greenspan_2From the WSJ:

Liberals Love the ‘One Percent’

The left has a strange affection for Federal Reserve policy that has turbocharged inequality.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has said the central bank’s goal is “to help Main Street not Wall Street,” and many liberal commentators seem convinced that she is advancing that goal. But talk to anyone on Wall Street. If they are being frank, they’ll admit that the Fed’s loose monetary policy has been one of the biggest contributors to their returns over the past five years. Unwittingly, it seems, liberals who support the Fed are defending policies that boost the wealth of the wealthy but do nothing to reduce inequality. This perverse outcome is not the Fed’s intent. It has kept interest rates near zero in an effort to combat the great recession of 2008-09 and nurse the weak economy back to health. Many analysts will argue that the recovery might have been even worse without the Fed’s efforts. Still, the U.S. economy has staged its weakest recovery since World War II, with output up a total of just 10 percentage points over the past five years. Meanwhile, the stock market has never been so high at this point in a recovery. This is the most powerful post-recession bull market in postwar history, with the stock market up by a record 135% over the past five years.The Fed can print as much money as it wants, but it can’t control where it goes, and much of it is finding its way into financial assets. On many long-term metrics, the stock market is now at levels that fall within the top 10% of valuations recorded over the past 100 years. The rally in the fixed-income market too is reaching giddy proportions, particularly for high-yield junk bonds, which are up 150% since 2009.It’s no secret who owns most of these assets. The wealthiest 1% of households, according to a study by Edward Wolff (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012), now owns 50% of all financial wealth in the U.S., and the top 10% owns 91% of the wealth in stocks and mutual funds.

Over the past decade, easy-money policies also have fueled the rise of an industry that transforms raw commodities—from soybeans to steel and oil—into financial products, such as exchange-traded funds, that can be traded like stocks. Hundreds of billions of dollars have poured into these products. In many cases, large investors hold the commodities in storage, driving up demand and the price.

On average, prices for commodities from oil to coffee to eggs are up 40% since 2009, double the typical commodity-price rebound in postwar recoveries. Though rising prices for staples such as these are inconsequential expenses to the rich, they are burdens for the poor, who spend about 10% of their income on energy and a third of it on food. Meanwhile, since bottoming in 2011, median house prices have risen four times faster than incomes, putting homes out of reach for many first-time buyers.

Leading Wall Street figures such as Stanley Druckenmiller and Seth Klarman are warning that the Fed is blowing dangerous asset-price bubbles. These warnings—given political suspicion of the financial community—seem only to confirm liberal faith in the Fed. Economists including Joseph Stiglitz and Brad DeLong cling to the hope that at least some of the easy money helps to create growth and jobs. Yet the abnormally low cost of capital is giving companies another incentive to invest in technologies that replace workers, rather than hiring more workers.

Some liberals are skeptical even of the basic premise that easy money is fueling higher asset prices. As Paul Krugman put it, “for the most part” the money printed by the Fed is piling up in bank reserves and cash. While banks are generally reluctant to lend, the fact is that commercial and industrial loans in particular are increasing rapidly, and much of that credit is reportedly going to financial-engineering projects, like mergers and share buybacks, which do more to increase stock prices than to create economic growth.

There is no doubt that easy money is boosting the stock market. Low interest rates are driving investors out of money-market funds and into stocks, while they also allow wealthy investors to borrow money cheaply to buy more stocks. In the U.S., margin debt has more than doubled in the past five years to a record $438 billion.

Many liberal economists note that dire warnings of how the Fed’s money printing would lead to runaway inflation have not come true. Overall consumer prices are indeed contained and the mandate of a central bank has traditionally been to control consumer prices. But that target is out of date. In a global economy, rising competition has a restraining effect on consumer prices because producers can shop around for the lowest-cost country in which to make goods like clothes or flat-screen TVs. The effect on asset prices is the opposite, as the supply of houses and stocks is relatively limited, and because demand is rising, as investors seek higher returns than the near-zero interest rates they can get at the bank. That is why investors are bidding up asset prices, even as consumer prices remain stable.

There is a fundamental shift in the challenge facing central bankers, everywhere. Top Fed officials including former Chairman Ben Bernanke have argued that rising asset prices are less a risk than a plus, because the rising value of houses, stocks and bonds makes families feel wealthier, so they spend more and boost the economy. But monetary policy should encourage investments that will strengthen the economy and create jobs in the long term—not conjure an illusory “wealth effect” that is for now lifting mainly the wealthy.

Mr. Sharma is head of emerging markets and global macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and the author of “Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles” ( Norton, 2012).

The Danger of Too Loose, Too Long

bernanke-hands-over-control

At least we may have one Fed member who’s stopped drinking from the punch bowl. From the WSJ:

With an improving labor market and an uptick in inflation, the danger now is to wait too long to tighten.

I have grown increasingly concerned about the risks posed by current monetary policy.First, we are experiencing financial excess that is of our own making. There is a lot of talk about “macroprudential supervision” as a way to prevent financial excess from creating financial instability. But macroprudential supervision is something of a Maginot Line: It can be circumvented. Relying upon it to prevent financial instability provides an artificial sense of confidence.Second, I believe we are at risk of doing what the Fed has too often done: overstaying our welcome by staying too loose, too long. We did a good job in staving off the deflationary and depression risks that were present in the aftermath of the 2007–09 financial crisis. But we now risk fighting the last war.

Given the rapidly improving employment picture, developments on the inflationary front and my own background as a banker and investment and hedge fund manager, I am increasingly at odds with some of my respected colleagues at the policy table of the Federal Reserve as well as with the thinking of many notable economists. The economy is reaching the desired destination faster than we imagined.

Third, should we overstay our welcome, we risk not only doing damage to the economy but also being viewed as politically pliant.

The Fed has been running a hyper-accommodative monetary policy to lift the economy out of the doldrums and counteract a possible deflationary spiral. Much of what we have paid out to purchase Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities has been put back to the Fed in the form of excess reserves deposited at the Federal Reserve banks. As of July 9, $2.517 trillion of excess reserves were parked on the 12 Fed banks’ balance sheets, while depository institutions wait to find eager and worthy borrowers to lend to.

But with low interest rates and abundant availability of credit in the nondepository market, the bond markets and other trading markets have spawned an abundance of speculative activity.

There are some who believe that “macroprudential supervision” will safeguard us from financial instability. I am more skeptical. Such supervision entails the vigilant monitoring of capital and liquidity ratios, tighter restrictions on bank practices and subjecting banks to stress tests. All to the good. But whereas the Federal Reserve and banking supervisory authorities used to oversee the majority of the credit system by regulating depository institutions, depository institutions now account for no more than 20% of the credit markets.

I am not alone in worrying about this. In her recent lecture at the International Monetary Fund, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said, “I am also mindful of the potential for low interest rates to heighten the incentives of financial market participants to reach for yield and take on risk, and of the limits of macroprudential measures to address these and other financial stability concerns.” She added that “[a]ccordingly, there may be times when an adjustment in monetary policy may be appropriate to ameliorate emerging risks to financial stability.”

I believe that time is fast approaching.

Some are willing to tolerate the risk of financial instability because the Fed has yet to fulfill the central bank’s mandate of “promot[ing] effectively the goals of maximum employment and stable prices.” Where do we stand on those two fronts? Answer: closer than many think.

While it is difficult to define “maximum employment,” labor-market conditions are improving smartly, quicker than the principals of the Federal Open Market Committee expected. The commonly cited household survey unemployment rate has arrived at 6.1% a full six months ahead of the schedule predicted only weeks ago by the central tendency of the forecasts of FOMC participants. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ so-called Jolts (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) data indicate that job openings are trending sharply higher, while “quits” as a percentage of total separations continue to trend upward—a sign that workers are confident of finding new and better opportunities if they leave their current positions.

Wages are beginning to lift. Median usual weekly earnings collected as part of the Current Population Survey are now growing at a rate of 3%, roughly their pre-crisis average. In short, the key variable of the price of labor, which the FOMC feared was stagnant, is beginning to turn upward. It is not doing so dramatically, but wage growth is an important driver of inflation.

The FOMC has a medium-term inflation target of 2% as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The 12-month consumer-price index (CPI), the Cleveland Fed’s median CPI, and the so-called sticky CPI calculated by the Atlanta Fed have all crossed 2%, and the Dallas Fed’s Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate has headline inflation averaging 1.7% on a 12-month basis, up from 1.3% a few months ago. PCE inflation is clearly rising toward our 2% goal more quickly than the FOMC imagined.

I do not believe there is reason to panic on the price front. But given that the inflation rate has been accelerating, this is no time for complacency either. Some economists have argued that we should accept overshooting our 2% inflation target if it results in a lower unemployment rate. But the notion that we can always tighten policy to bring down inflation after overshooting full employment is dangerous. Tightening monetary policy once we have pushed past sustainable capacity limits has almost always resulted in recession, the last thing we need.

So what to do? My sense is that ending our large-scale asset purchases this fall will not be enough. The FOMC should consider tapering the reinvestment of maturing securities and begin incrementally shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet. Some might worry that paring the Fed’s reinvestment in mortgage-backed securities might hurt the housing market. But I believe the demand for housing is sufficiently robust to continue improving despite a small rise in mortgage rates. Then early next year, or potentially sooner depending on the pace of economic improvement, the FOMC may well begin to raise interest rates in gradual increments.

Those of us who are the current trustees of the Fed’s reputation—the FOMC—must be especially careful that nothing we do appears to be politically motivated. In nourishing the growth of the economy and employment, we must avoid erring on the side of coddling inflation to compensate for the inability of fiscal and regulatory policy makers in the legislative and executive branches to do their job. We must continue to protect the independence of the Fed.

Mr. Fisher is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. This article is excerpted from his speech on July 16 at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The Lingering, Hidden Costs of the Bank Bailout

pigs

Bravo. Reprinted from the WSJ:

Why is growth so anemic? New economic activity has been discouraged. Here are some ways to change that.

The rescue of incumbent investors in the government bailout of the largest U.S. banks in the autumn of 2008 has been widely viewed as unfair, as indeed it was in applying different rules to different players. The bailout through the Troubled Asset Relief Program has been justified by the Federal Reserve and Treasury as preventing a financial collapse of the economy.The rescue, however, had a hidden cost for the economy that is difficult to quantify but can be crippling. New economic activity is hobbled if it is not freed from the burden of sharing its return with investors who bore risks that failed. [‘Heads we win, tails you lose’ is also immoral by any traditional definition of the concept.] The demand for new economic activity is enlarged when its return does not have to be shared with former claimants protected from the consequences of their risk-taking. This is the function of bankruptcy in an economic system organized on loss as well as profit principles of motivation.Financial failure and the restructuring of assets and liabilities motivates new capital to flow directly into new enterprise activity at the cutting edge of technology—the source of new products, output and employment which in turn provide new growth and recovery. Requiring new investment to share its return with failed predecessors is tantamount to having required Henry Ford to share the return from investment in his new horseless carriage with the carriage makers, livery stables and horse-breeding farms that his innovation would render obsolete.This burden on new investment helps explain the historically weak recovery since the “Great Recession” officially ended in June 2009, and the recent downturn in gross-domestic-product growth. The GDP growth rate for all of 2013 was just 1.9%, and in the first quarter of 2014 it declined at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.9%.

With only two balance-sheet crises in the U.S. in the past 80 years, 1929-33 and 2007-09, we have little experience against which to test alternative policies and economic responses. Japan and Sweden are examples of economies that followed distinct pathways after crises in the early 1990s. In Japan the economy floundered in slow growth for over two decades; Sweden recovered much more quickly. The difference can be attributed to following different policies in the treatment of severe bank distress.

Japan’s real-estate market suffered a major decline in the early 1990s. Home prices peaked in the fall of 1990 and fell by 25% in two years. By 2004 they had fallen 65%. Meanwhile, nonperforming loans continued to escalate throughout this 14-year period.

Japanese policy permitted banks to carry mortgage loans at book value regardless of their accumulating loss. Loans were expanded to existing borrowers to enable them to continue to meet their mortgage payments. This response could be rationalized as “smoothing out the bump.” Bank investors were protected from failure by stretching out any ultimate return on their investment, relying on a presumed recovery from new growth that never materialized. This accounting cover-up was coupled with government deficit spending—tax revenues declined and expenditures rose—as a means of stimulating economic growth that was delayed into the future.

From the beginning Japan was caught in the black hole of too much negative equity. The banks, burdened with large inventories of bad loans, geared down into debt reduction mode, reluctant to incur more debt, much as their household mortgage customers were mired in underwater mortgages and reluctant to spend. The result was a decade of lost growth that stretched into and absorbed a second decade of dismal performance. The policy cure—save the banks and their incumbent investors—created the sink that exceeded the pull of recovery forces.

Sweden’s response to deep recession in the early 1990s was the opposite of Japan’s: Bank shareholders were required to absorb loan losses, although the government financed enough of the bank losses on bad assets to protect bank bondholders from default. This was a mistake: Bondholders assumed the risk of default, and a bank’s failure should have required bondholder “haircuts” if needed. Nevertheless, the result was recovery from a severe downturn. By 1994 Sweden’s loan losses had bottomed out and lending began a slow recovery that accelerated after 1999.

The political process will always favor prominent incumbent investors. They are visible; they contribute to election campaigns; they assist in the choice of secretaries of Treasury and advisers and they suffer badly from balance-sheet crises like the Great Recession and the Great Depression. Invisible are the investors whose capital will flow into the new economic activity that constitutes the recovery.

Growth in both employment and output depends vitally on new and young companies. Unfortunately, U.S. firms face exceptionally high corporate income-tax rates, the highest in the developed world at 35%, which hobbles growth and investment. Now the Obama administration is going after firms that reincorporate overseas for tax purposes. Last week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee urging Congress to “enact legislation immediately . . . to shut down this abuse of our tax system.”

This is precisely the opposite of what U.S. policy makers should be doing. To encourage investment, the U.S. needs to lower its corporate rates by at least 10 percentage points and reduce the incentive to escape the out-of-line and unreasonably high corporate tax rate. Ideally, since young firms generally reinvest their profits in production and jobs, such taxes should fall only on business income after it is paid out to individuals. As long as business income is being reinvested it is growing new income for all.

There are no quick fixes. What we can do is reduce bureaucratic and tax barriers to the emergence and growth of new economic enterprises, which hold the keys to a real economic recovery.

Mr. Smith, a recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, is a professor at Chapman University and the author, along with Steven D. Gjerstad, of the new book “Rethinking Housing Bubbles” (Cambridge University Press).

Financial Crisis Amnesia

 

AENeumann

Alex Pollock, quoted from the WSJ:

It is now five years since the end of the most recent U.S. financial crisis of 2007-09. Stocks have made record highs, junk bonds and leveraged loans have boomed, house prices have risen, and already there are cries for lower credit standards on mortgages to “increase access.”

Meanwhile, in vivid contrast to the Swiss central bank, which marks its investments to market, the Federal Reserve has designed its own regulatory accounting so that it will never have to recognize any losses on its $4 trillion portfolio of long-term bonds and mortgage securities.

Who remembers that such “special” accounting is exactly what the Federal Home Loan Bank Board designed in the 1980s to hide losses in savings and loans? Who remembers that there even was a Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which for its manifold financial sins was abolished in 1989?

It is 25 years since 1989. Who remembers how severe the multiple financial crises of the 1980s were?

Full article (subscription req’d.)

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