Tag: economics

Recession Over?

As an economist I am the first to admit that sometimes the methods and practices of economics can end up creating confusion rather than understanding.  The National Bureau of Economic Research’s (NBER) recent announcement that the recession ended in June 2009 is one such example.

At the heart of this confusion is a difference in how the public sees a recession and how NBER defines it.  Most importantly, NBER views recessions as contractions.   Simply, “Is the economy growing or not?”  NBER uses that framework to then date business cycles from their peak to their trough.  For this reason, NBER will often date the beginning of a recession during a time when the economy feels strong (at its peak) and date the end of a recession when it feels weak (when it’s at the bottom).

Since this method seems at odds with how the public views the economy, why do economists use it?  Quite simply, it is a lot easier to spot, and agree on, turning points in the economy than it is to agree on when growth moves from weak to moderate to strong.

OK, enough on definitions.  Did we actually hit bottom in Summer 2009?  Looking at a variety of economic measures, I think it’s clear we hit bottom earlier–more like Spring 2009.  Again, I must emphasize: Hitting bottom is not the same thing as “everything is fine” - just ask anyone who’s personally hit bottom.  Just two examples of why I believe the contraction ended in early 2009; first: consumption, as one can see from the chart, actually hit bottom hear the end of 2008.

One of the defining characteristics of the current recession has been continued weakness in the labor market.  I would go as far as to say there has almost been a disconnect of the labor market from the general economy.  All that said, looking at the trend in layoffs and discharges indicates that separations from the labor force peaked near the end of 2008.  The graph below also illustrates why some are worried about a double-dip, as layoffs spiked again in the middle of 2010, although most of that is driven by the 2010 Census hires.

The point to all this is not to argue that the economy isn’t weak.  It obviously still is.  However, the economy has been growing, for at least a year, and under many measures, longer.  Interestingly enough, most measures of the economy hit bottom before a dime of stimulus money was spent.  The above charts are from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis FRED website.  Don’t take my word on these two charts.  Look at lots of other measures.  Not all, but most other measures seem to tell the same story.

Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates

I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.

CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.

What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.

Abortion, Third-Party Payer, and the Cost of Health Care

A major problem with America’s health care system, both before and after Obamacare, is the fact that consumers very rarely spend their own money when obtaining health care. Known as third-party payer, this problem exists in part because government directly finances almost 50 percent of health care expenditures. But even a majority of supposedly private health care spending is financed by employer-provided policies that are heavily distorted by a preference in the tax code that encourages insurance payments even for routine expenses. According to government data, only 12 percent of health care costs are financed directly by consumers. And since consumers almost always are buying health care with somebody else’s money, it should come as no surprise that this system results in rising costs and inefficiency. This is why repealing Obamacare is just the first step that is needed if policymakers genuinely want to restore a free market health care system (all of which is explained in this 4-minute video).

Unfortunately, many people think that market forces don’t work in the health care system and that costs will always rise faster than prices for other goods and services. There are a few examples showing that this is not true, and proponents of liberalization usually cite cosmetic surgery and laser-eye surgery as examples of treatments that generally are financed by out-of-pocket payments. Not surprisingly, prices for these treatments have been quite stable – particularly when increases in quality are added to the equation.

I just ran across another example, and this one could be important since it may resonate with those who normally are very suspicious of free markets. As the chart from the Alan Guttmacher Institute shows, the price of an abortion has been remarkably stable over the past 20-plus years. Let’s connect the dots to make everything clear. Abortions generally are financed by out-of-pocket payments. People therefore have an incentive to shop carefully and get good value since they are spending their own money. And because market forces are allowed, the cost of abortions is stable. The logical conclusion to draw from this, of course, is that allowing market forces for other medical services will generate the same positive results in terms of cost and efficiency.

None of this analysis, by the way, implies that abortion is good or bad, or that it should be legal or illegal. The only lesson to be learned is that market forces control costs and promote efficiency and that more government spending and intervention exacerbate the third-party payer crisis.

Obamanomics and my Seven Steamy Nights with the Gals from Victoria’s Secret

The White House is claiming that the so-called stimulus created between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs even though total employment has dropped by more than 2.3 million since Obama took office. The Administration justifies this legerdemain by asserting that the economy actually would have lost about 5 million jobs without the new government spending.
I’ve decided to adopt this clever strategy to spice up my social life. Next time I see my buddies, I’m going to claim that I enjoyed a week of debauchery with the Victoria’s Secret models. And if any of them are rude enough to point out that I’m lying, I’ll simply explain that I started with an assumption of spending -7 nights with the supermodels. And since I actually spent zero nights with them, that means a net of +7. Some of you may be wondering whether it makes sense to begin with an assumption of “-7 nights,” but I figure that’s okay since Keynesians begin with the assumption that you can increase your prosperity by transferring money from your left pocket to your right pocket.
Since I’m a gentleman, I’m not going to share any of the intimate details of my escapades, but I will include an excerpt from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal about the Obama Administration’s make-believe jobs.

President Obama’s chief economist announced that the plan had “created or saved” between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs and raised GDP by 2.7% to 3.2% through June 30. …We almost feel sorry for Ms. Romer having to make this argument given that since February 2009 the U.S. economy has lost a net 2.35 million jobs. Using the White House “created or saved” measure means that even if there were only three million Americans left with jobs today, the White House could claim that every one was saved by the stimulus. …White House economists…said the unemployment rate would peak at 9% without the stimulus (there’s your counterfactual) and that with the stimulus the rate would stay at 8% or below. In other words, today there are 700,000 fewer jobs than Ms. Romer predicted we would have if we had done nothing at all. If this is a job creation success, what does failure look like? …All of these White House jobs estimates are based on the increasingly discredited Keynesian spending “multiplier,” which according to White House economist Larry Summers means that every $1 of government spending will yield roughly $1.50 in higher GDP. Ms. Romer thus plugs her spending data into the Keynesian computer models and, presto, out come 2.5 million to 3.6 million jobs, even if the real economy has lost jobs. To adapt Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe, the White House computer models, or your own eyes?

The Deadly Impact of the Death Tax

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.

The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.

“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.

The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.

So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.

It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

Show Me the Money

A number of economists have been warning about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, but defenders of the central bank often ask, “if there’s an easy money policy, why isn’t that showing up in the form of higher prices?” Thomas Sowell has an answer to this question, explaining that people and businesses are sitting on cash because anti-business policies have dampened economic activity.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself but its implications are sobering. How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy has plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy. …Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending. For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

I do my best to avoid monetary policy issues and certainly am not an expert on the subject, so I asked a few people for their thoughts and was told that perhaps the strongest evidence for Sowell’s hypothesis comes from the Federal Reserve’s data on “Aggregate Reserves of Depository Institutions” - specifically the figures on excess reserves. This is the money that banks keep at the Federal Reserve voluntarily because they don’t have any better options. As you can see from the chart, excess reserves shot up during the financial crisis. But what’s important is that they did not come back down afterwards. Some people refer to this as “money on the sidelines” and Sowell clearly is worried that it will have an impact on the price level if banks start circulating it. That doesn’t sound like good news. On the other hand, it’s not exactly good news that banks are holding money at the Fed because there are not enough profitable opportunities.

What this really tells us is that the combination of easy money and big government isn’t working any better today than it did in the 1970s.

The Recess Appointment of Donald Berwick

Late last week, President Obama made a recess appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick to head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (formerly the Health Care Financing Administration). This has provided a good chunk of the week and weekend’s polititainment.

I know little about Berwick or his merits as an administrator of the government health care system, but in an April Cato@Liberty post I reviewed an article of his on “patient-centered health care.” If you’re interested, take a look at my comment, “A Little Less Poetry, a Little More Economics.”